Smiles may not come easy for 5-year-old cancer patient Sydney Coari these days. But her smile was ear-to-ear for much of Oct. 16 after she became “chief for the day” of the St. Charles County Police Department.
The smiles stem from the kindness of the police, particularly one patrolman who had met Coari and her family several months earlier under less than happy circumstances. He pulled her great uncle’s van over for a traffic stop in late July.
Patrolman Shawn Birdsong pulled over Matthew Manley’s van on Hwy. 94 near Interstate 64 for a license plate infraction. He saw Coari, who is bald, sitting in the van and asked about her. Manley said they had just come from a chemotherapy treatment.
Manley got a ticket but Coari got something else – a new friend. Birdsong went to the trunk of his patrol car and pulled out a small child’s backpack – part of the department’s “Project Backpack St. Louis” program. It was filled with essentials as well as art supplies and stuffed animals.
He put some other goodies in the bag and gave it to Coari along with a short, handwritten note with a smiley face saying he hoped she would feel better soon.
That simple gesture morphed into something bigger. The Manleys posted what Birdsong had done on Facebook, which went viral and drew media attention and inquiries as far away as England, Dana Manley said.
The St. Charles County Police Department also decided that Coari would be a good candidate for its “Chief for the Day” program, which involves children with chronic or life-threatening illness and children who have demonstrated outstanding citizenship.
“It was just the right thing to do,” Birdsong said. “Sydney is very special. She’s going through a tough time in her life now and I just wanted to help her through her tough time.”
How tough? Coari is battling a rare form of kidney cancer and her parents aren’t there to help because of their own problems, her great aunt, Dana, said.
Coari was staying with the Manleys earlier this year when she mentioned a pain in her side. That pain turned out to be a tumor. Dana said Coari’s right kidney and lymph nodes were removed at the end of March followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment. She had a relapse in June when another tumor appeared; the chemo and radiation weren’t working.
On Oct. 19, Coari was to begin a procedure at St. Louis Children’s Hospital involving the transplantation of stem cells. It’s her best chance, the Manleys said. If that doesn’t work they may try to get her involved in clinical trials at St Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, but that may be a long shot.
“She’s the strongest person I have ever met in my life,” Dana said. “She has never once complained. She doesn’t cry. The only the reason we know she’s ever in pain is because her blood pressure goes up. When we ask her she says ‘no, I’m not in pain’ because she just wants to go home. She’s a fighter, she’s going to continue to fight this.”
For Coari’s special day, police rolled out the red carpet,
Coari and her great aunt and uncle were escorted to the department’s staff-packed media room by Cinderella. There, she was presented with a special proclamation read by County Executive Steve Ehlmann.
Ehlmann’s proclamation said Coari “reminds us that strength is drawn from the heart and radiated with a big, bright smile.” He added that Birdsong and the county police are “casting wishes upon every shining star that Sydney Coari’s life be filled with good health, royal fun, magical events, enchanting memories and graceful courage.”
Ehlmann reminded Coari that if she did a good job she could replace Chief David Todd when she got older, which drew a few snickers. Todd said he was momentarily stunned and cautioned Coari not to grant vacation requests. He told Ehlmann that Coari said she would run “a straight department and be fiscally sound.”
Coari and her family, with Cinderella, news reporters and television cameras in tow were then off on a behind the scenes, guided tour of the department offices at 101 Sheriff Dierker Court in O’Fallon. A robotic canine accompanied the tour, with stops at the chief’s desk, laboratories, and even a peak at the SWAT vehicle and police cars. The department’s helicopter landed and Coari got a chance to sit in the pilot’s seat.
Then it was off with Cinderella and Birdsong to, according to the department’s media advisory, “respond to a call for service at the McDonald’s restaurant at Cave Springs. “The Hamburglar once again had stolen all the happy meals in McDonaldland.” Of course, they also made time for lunch with Ronald McDonald.
From one activity to the next, Coari’s smile became constant.
“She didn’t know this was going to happen,” Dana said. “She knew sometime that she was going to get together with officer Shawn and get to talk to him. [But] this has made my whole year. We haven’t seen her smile this much since the diagnosis.”
That smile means everything.
“It’s a lot of work to take care of her ,but she pays you back in her smiles that just warm your heart,” Matthew said. “It’s like her soul is burning a little too bright.”