By GILLIAN MOHNEY
One California teacher is happy to simply be back in the classroom as the new school year kicks off.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Carol Clark was forced to stay out of the classroom for nearly the entire year due to treatments and complications.
Eventually she was gone for so long, her health insurance and salary were threatened. But Clark's benefits were saved after multiple colleagues donated their sick days to the 6th grade teacher.
Clark, 56, a teacher at Jaime Escalante Elementary School in Cudahy, California, ended up receiving an additional 154 sick days from co-workers or other teachers as part of a program run by the Los Angeles Unified School District to help teachers in Clark’s situation, according to ABC News station KABC-TV in Los Angeles.
Before the donation Clark had been struggling to keep her salary and benefits. For many teachers in the Los Angeles area, once they use up their sick days and their vacation days they can start losing both their salary and health benefits.
Last year Clark missed nearly all of the school year except for just two months. Clark originally thought she would be able to come back for the spring semester, but she ended up needing major surgery after complications arose.
“I finished chemotherapy. Within a week I developed complications,” said Clark. “I couldn’t come back to school at all.”
To cover her time off, Clark used her vacation days and another 120 sick days that she had accrued over 16 years of teaching. But it wasn’t enough.
At the end of last year, she had no more sick days and was still too sick to teach. Clark had one other option. Her husband, also a teacher at Jaime Escalante Elementary School, was able to rally co-workers and other teachers to donate their sick days as part of the “Catastrophic Illness Donation Program.”
"We get paid for 180 days in the school year. So she got 154, so almost a whole year," Dave Clark told KABC-TV.
Gayle Pollard-Terry, deputy director of communications for the Los Angeles Unified School District, told ABC News that the program helps around 20 to 25 teachers every year.
“When you run out of all of your sick paid leave…if you run out, you [can] lose your health benefits and your income,” she said.
Pollard-Terry said the program can help fill the gap for sick teachers or school district employees.
She said although most donations are not as extreme as Clark’s tally, there have been at least two other donation drives where more than 150 days were raised for a teacher.
For Carol Clark the outpouring of donations from co-workers both past and present was surprising and emotional. She now has extra days to help her through new surgeries scheduled for this year.
“Other people ask me ‘What do you say to people who donate?’” said Clark. “I don’t know what to say to them. I say thank you. But that doesn’t’ seem like enough. It was really a tremendous thing that they did.”
Clark said she tried to thank her co-workers in a staff meeting but was too “chocked up” to speak. Instead she ended up writing them an email to thank them.