Michael Martinez stood in the St. Joseph’s Elementary School gym Thursday afternoon and listened to hundreds of students chant his daughter’s name.

They don’t know her, but they know her story.

Anya Martinez is a six-year-old girl from Ancaster, Ont. who has been fighting cancer for most of her young life. She’s endured two bouts of leukemia and forced it into remission.

'She’s finding the nice places in hell, somehow.' - Michael Martinez, Anya's father

But now the cancer is back, and Anya's best hope of survival is a procedure stateside that will cost at least $500,000 — a hefty amount for any family to raise.

That’s where Rick Palkowski comes in. He’s a Grade 3 and 4 teacher who has raised over $4,000 alone for the cause — by using his beard. With a pile of tattoos and facial hair thick enough to make Blackbeard jealous, Palkowski isn’t exactly the picture of a traditional elementary school teacher. But when he told his students he was going to shave it all off Wednesday to raise money for the Martinez family, they were instantly behind him.

Staying positive

All that positive energy helps keep Anya going, Martinez says.

“She’s starting to realize even at six how many people are supporting her and how many people want to do good things for her. It’s almost like she has fans now rooting for her,” he said. “Every little bit definitely helps.”

“My daughter is a pretty positive person. Her glass is always half full — that’s just the kind of girl she is. That’s what keeps giving us the energy to keep plugging away.”

Anya has managed to stay positive through medical procedures that would cripple most — radiation, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants. Nothing has worked.

The family has appealed to the Ministry of Health to cover the experimental therapy, but to no avail. The treatment — called chimeric antigen receptor T cell therapy – is Anya’s best hope, Martinez says.

“They take her cells and they genetically alter them in a lab. It’s essentially a virus, which turns them into fighter cells,” he said. “They put them back in her body and they go around hunting down other cells.”

But the treatment is only offered at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Lab tests have shown she’s a good candidate, Martinez says. “All the standard therapies and the approved therapies haven’t worked, so we have to do something.”

“When the doctors in Canada tell you there’s nothing else they can do, you get into survival mode.”

'It's heartbreaking'

Palkowski says he felt compelled to help knowing that Anya was missing out on so much at school every day. “For a six-year-old girl to not be able to go to school for half her life … it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to help out as much as I could.”

On Wednesday, that meant hacking off a beard he’d been growing for almost two years. “I know my mom’s happy to see it go, but it’s a bit of a case of separation anxiety for me,” he laughed.

Amid the cheers and excited students, Martinez admits it’s his own daughter’s strength that keeps him going day to day.

“She’s definitely the toughest one in our family. She’s been through hell, but she’s always smiling,” he said. “She hasn’t even come back. She’s finding the nice places in hell, somehow.”

“She keeps telling me that we’re going to it figure out — and I believe her.”

To donate to Anya Martinez’ fundraising campaign, visit Gofundme.com.

Anya Martinez fundraiser