October 22, 2009 in Washington Voices

Teen comes up with solution

Carved puzzles raise funds to help friend’s mom through cancer
By The Spokesman-Review

When Tasha Kelly-Schafnitz learned that her friend’s mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer, the 16-year-old East Valley High junior began to make puzzles out of wood to sell and help defray some of the medical expenses.
(Full-size photo)

How to help

To order a puzzle, call Tasha Kelly-Schafnitz at (509) 599-2542.

When 16-year-old Tasha Kelly-Schafnitz heard her friend’s mom had breast cancer, she felt bad. When she heard that a car wash benefit to help with medical expenses raised less than $10, she felt worse. Then she decided to do something.

Schafnitz, a student in the Veterinary Assisting program at the Spokane Vocational Skills Center, enjoys both animals and woodworking. She’s combined her two passions by crafting 3-D puzzles in animal shapes out of alder, maple, pine and oak. Now, she’s selling her intricate puzzles and donating the proceeds to help her friend’s mom.

Cancer has impacted Schafnitz’s own family. “My dad had leukemia when I was three months old,” she said softly. In fact, though Ted Schafnitz said he’s cancer-free, he still struggles with the after-effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

During his bout with cancer, he found solace in his woodworking shop, and so did his daughter. “From the time she was a baby in her walker, she’d come out to the shop and bang wood around,” he said.

And when she found a pattern for animal puzzles in a magazine, he ordered a couple for her. “The first one I made was a German Shepherd,” his daughter said. The family had always owned shepherds and Tasha found special comfort in her pets.

School was difficult for her. “I knew I had learning problems growing up,” she said. “It felt really bad to me. I couldn’t explain why I struggled. I could think it – I just couldn’t say it.”

Her dog, Starri, offered unconditional affection and acceptance. Starri didn’t care what her grades were, or how articulate she was. “I didn’t talk to anybody when I was in elementary school,” Schafnitz said. “I didn’t ask for help. The other kids just looked at me funny.”

Finally, in sixth-grade she was diagnosed with autism. At last she had a name for her struggles, and the proper diagnosis allowed her to get the help she needed. She attends Polaris High School (formerly East Valley Alternative). “Now she’s getting A’s, B’s and C’s,” her father said proudly.

The fundraising project didn’t surprise teacher Shane Toy. “Tasha is the most amazing young lady,” he said. “She’s a true giver.”

Skills Center instructor Michelle Burdick agreed. In her veterinary assisting, classroom animals are welcome. Burdick’s bulldog, Isabelle, happily snuffed and snorted at visitors. “Tasha brought me a bulldog puzzle,” she said, smiling. “I have no artistic ability myself. I’m amazed when students can do this.”

The puzzles are true works of art, with between 15 and 30 interlocking pieces. Schafnitz has made giraffes, elk and golden retriever puzzles, and even a dragon.

Burdick offered to post fliers about the puzzles around the school. “I love students that show leadership skills and do community service projects,” Burdick said. “Not many students choose to do these kinds of activities.”

For Schafnitz it’s simple. “Desirae is my friend,” she said and shrugged. “It feels pretty good because I’m actually helping them out.”

Her friend is grateful. Eighteen-year-old Desirae Spencer said this is her mother’s second bout of breast cancer. Spencer lives with her father in Spokane, but her mother lives in Arizona. “She’s still paying medical bills from last time,” she said. “I got concerned and I wanted to help with her medical bills. I tried a car wash, but that didn’t work.”

Then she heard about Schafnitz’s project. “I thought it was so nice of her,” Spencer said. “It really helps to know, it’s not just me that cares – someone else cares too.”

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