Fairmont grad’s spirit lives on in athletic scholarship

For five years, Melissa Fortener McLaughlin (Fairmont ’96) fought an uphill battle against breast cancer, journaling every step of the way on a blog for the world to see. From the hospital to hospice, she told her story, giving insight to the hundreds who checked her website each day.

In January 2009, two days before turning 31, McLaughlin lost her battle. Her spirit lives on in the newly created Melissa Fortener McLaughlin Fairmont Athletic Scholarship. The $500 to $1,000 scholarship will reward a Fairmont athlete who displays outstanding athleticism, service, and attitude.

“Melissa was passionate about everything,” said McLaughlin’s mother, Pam Fortener. “She was creative, she was athletic. She tried to do as much as she could.” McLaughlin’s gift for making a difference in people’s lives is reflected in this scholarship, which was created by her parents, Pam and Don Fortener, and close friend Angie Warner.

Event spurs flood of support

On Oct. 17, they will raise money for the scholarship by hosting a fundraiser at the IUE-CWA Local 755 Union Hall at 1675 Woodman Dr. From 6 p.m. to midnight, guests will enjoy a variety of food — BBQ, potato salad, cole slaw and appetizers, as well as desserts and alcoholic beverages. Anyone over 21 can participate in the fundraiser, which means while students can’t attend, their parents can. The entry fee of $20 also covers door prizes, which have been coming in a steady flow.

“It’s incredible. The donations just kept rolling in,” said Don Fortener. Prizes include scores of gift baskets from stores and restaurants, free passes for bowling, dancing and sports games, two autographed Cincinnati Reds jerseys, an AJ Hawk signed hat, and a football signed by Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones. A former Kettering Schools employee, Patty Brua, is auctioning off a session of ACT tutoring worth $650. At least 40 businesses, sports teams, and families have done their part. The family is still accepting donations for the silent auction.

The biggest prize of all is one that comforted McLaughlin for months in her hospital bed — a quilt made of 24 different Fairmont athletics shirts, one for almost every sport. Made for her by her mother-in-law, Diana McLaughlin, the quilt has a lot of love sewn into it. The Forteners are using the quilt to help another Fairmont student just as it helped McLaughlin during her illness. It will be auctioned off for $5 a ticket, with all of the proceeds going to the scholarship. 

“With the cost of the shirts and the time that was put into it, the quilt is probably worth $500,” said Pam Fortener. She hopes that the winner of the quilt may decide to donate it to the school, in which case it will hang in Trent Arena.

‘Her attitude was contagious’

The outpouring of love and support for McLaughlin is a response to the tremendous things she did in this world. Family and friends tell of how she could be faced with anything and still come through it with dignity and lend a hand to someone the process. Andy Aracri, a coach and teacher at Fairmont High School, graduated with McLaughlin and was one of her best friends until her death.

Melissa Fortener

“Her attitude was contagious. People just gravitated to her. Everyone was always at ease around Melissa,” said Aracri. In high school, McLaughlin played volleyball and basketball. She served her school on the Student Council and wrote for The Flyer newmagazine. At football games, players could always see her in the front row, cheering the loudest.

Jonnie Shoemacher, the Athletic Department secretary and a Fairmont Diving coach, knew McLaughlin when she was just 4. “That child was the most independent thing I ever saw. She wanted to do things her way and she rarely asked for help,” said Shoemacher. Pam Fortener can attest to that. She said her daughter’s theme in her childhood was, “I can do it myself.”

Honoring McLaughlin’s spirit

In the first years of her illness, McLaughlin would lose her voice at times from the cancer and the treatments. To vent her feelings, she started her blog, http://www.fortscancersux.blogspot.com/. A source of expression quickly turned into a site where anyone could check on McLaughlin’s condition or seek inspiration from her stories. One of her favorite maxims covers shirts and bumper stickers across Kettering, “No matter how bad it gets, there’s always someone out there that would LOVE to have your problems.”

McLaughlin refused to let her illness sap her spirit. In defiance of the cancer, she played on her Cincinnati rugby team until the last five months of her life. When her health confined her to a wheelchair, she would go out with her oxygen tank and wheel around herself around Target looking for Christmas gifts. When the chemo took her hair, she never donned a wig, because as she said, “I would look really good bald.”

As her mother said, nothing could slow her down. Even in the last months of her life, McLaughlin seemed to be the last person on Earth who thought she was dying.

“If you read her blog, you would think that she was getting better,” said Pam Fortener. “Her goal was to beat it, and she always thought she would.”

When 1,500 people gathered to pay their respects to McLaughlin in January, the love that she shared with those she knew, and those she didn’t know, couldn’t have been clearer.

“Her presence, her persona; it’s always there,” said Aracri, and it will be there on Oct. 17 when hundreds come together to honor her spirit through the Melissa Fortener McLaughlin Athletic Scholarship.