Garrison Forest Teachers, Students Raise Money for Cancer in Honor of Beloved Teacher

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Ellen Dierkes gets involved at a past Swim Across America Baltimore
Ellen Dierkes at a past Swim Across America/ Baltimore open water swim.

Ellen Dierkes loved many things:  her family, her friends, teaching her fifth grade class at Garrison Forest School.

But swimming?  Not so much.

That did not stop her from helping to bring Swim Across America to Baltimore with her husband John in 2009.  The non-profit raises money for cancer research through an indoor swim at Meadowbrook Pool and an open water swim on the Magothy River.  The 2015 swim will be held this weekend, Saturday, September 19 and Sunday, September 20.

Ellen was diagnosed with stage four melanoma in 2009.   After finishing her initial treatment, she decided to hop in the pool herself, and after much training, she swam a mile with her daughter Emily.

Unfortunately, Ellen died of cancer last November after a long battle.  In her honor, Garrison Forest School, where she taught from 2000 until two days before her death, has formed a team to swim in this year’s event.   The “Garrison Forest for Ellen Dierkes” team is made up of colleagues, parents and students including Gretchen Townsend and her daughter Sydney ’21; teacher Kristen Miller and her daughters Josie ’23 and Lucy ’21; teachers Dana Livne, Kathy  Schaffer, Karin Riesenfeld, and the school’s athletic director, Traci Davis to name a few. “Whether they complete one lap or 50, the Garrison Forest team plans to swim with the spirit with which Ellen Dierkes lived her life and fought cancer—with conviction, indomitable spirit, authenticity and bravery,” said Gretchen.  So far the team has raised $3,750 of its $5,000 goal.

Garrison Forest’s Upper School students and faculty have also planned an on-campus water event as part of the “Garrison Forest for Ellen Dierkes” team effort. On Friday, September 18, at 1:15 p.m., the Upper School students will cheer as four faculty members paddle inner tubes across the GFS campus pond. Students are raising money to challenge the faculty for the Pond Paddle.

Ellen’s memory will live on through her family, friends and students and especially through the Swim Across America Lab at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.  Over the last five years, SAA Baltimore has donated more than $2.3 million to the lab.  Earlier this year, the lab discovered a genetic biomarker that may accurately predict who will respond to certain cancer drugs known as PD-1 inhibitors. Such drugs aim to disarm systems developed by cancer cells to evade detection and destruction by immune system cells. The discovery made news across the world and was featured on The CBS Evening News (

Says Luis Diaz, M.D., director of the Swim Across America Baltimore Lab at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, “Ellen was an inspiration to so many of us. I will miss her energy and tireless efforts to help those of us working everyday to find new ways to beat cancer.”

To learn more about Team Ellen and Swim Across America, visit the SAA/Baltimore website.



Edited from Press Release

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