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SPPS Breast Cancer Survivors Empower Each Other, Their Students as ‘Dragon Divas’

Elizabeth Simmer and Meredith Leary Johnson

Elizabeth Simmer and Meredith Leary Johnson are both educators in Saint Paul Public Schools; Elizabeth is an academic intervention teacher at Randolph Heights and Horace Mann, and Meredith is an academic support teacher at Capitol Hill. But the two women have an even stronger connection: They are both breast cancer survivors. And they may have never met if they hadn’t joined the Dragon Divas, a unique support group that comes together to race dragon boats while finding community and healing.

Elizabeth was diagnosed at the age of 36 when she was teaching kindergarten in SPPS. That was 23 years ago, and she still remembers the support she received from her principal and colleagues. She heard about the Dragon Divas in 2022 and, in addition to practicing and competing with the team locally, has paddled in San Diego, Tampa, Las Vegas and Iowa.

“Being on the water surrounded by positive energy is amazing,” says Elizabeth (pictured in the blue shirt). “Cancer is not a death sentence. It's been 23 years since my diagnosis and I intend to paddle for years to come.”

Meredith’s diagnosis came during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, putting added strain and stress on her and her family. She joined the Divas quickly after her treatment was complete, which she credits for making her “feel stronger and more determined to be ready for a long future.” 

This past summer, she said yes to another new challenge and joined the staff and students at Capitol Hill. “Children embody joy and possibilities,” Meredith (pictured with the serpent statue) says. “I try to bring them the philosophy from the Dragon Divas: We are stronger and better for working together!”

Meredith wants to remind everyone to make their health a priority and schedule annual health appointments. Other SPPS staff who are breast cancer survivors can contact Elizabeth to learn more about the Dragon Divas at

Watch this WCCO clip and another video from Allina Health about the Dragon Divas. Meredith is interviewed in both videos.