Regular visitors to Anglers Restaurant in Searsport may have noticed that there’s something fishy going on there lately, and it’s got nothing to do with what’s on the menu.

These days, visitors to the local seafood restaurant are greeted by the sight of purple paper fish that are filling up the windows of the business. Each fish is lovingly signed by Anglers patrons — some are signed by entire families, while others carry the unmistakable scrawl and endearing spelling errors that could only come from a child:

“Sry for wat happen I feel srry,” reads one fish, authored by Colton R.

Other customers included similar sentiments on the paper fish, such as “I love you, angel,” and “Best wishes.”

The message-carrying fish are intended to help an 8-year-old Searsport girl in her battle against leukemia.

Kylie Merithew, who just celebrated her eighth birthday Monday, Dec. 13, was diagnosed with the disease after she began feeling unusually tired in the fall, according to her mom, Melissa Merithew Lord.

Merithew Lord, who has been a waitress at Anglers since the restaurant opened about 10 years ago, said she began noticing big changes in her daughter’s behavior shortly after the Searsport Elementary School second-grader started school. Merithew Lord recalled that her once “wild child” became fatigued and regularly complained of not feeling well.

“She was really tired, she would come home from school at 3:30 and she’d just go right to bed,” said Merithew Lord. “She wouldn’t even eat.”

After several trips to her family doctor and the local emergency room, Merithew Lord said, the family still had no answers regarding Kylie’s condition. As the days progressed, the once vibrant and active child quit playing soccer, an activity her mom said she loved, because she was simply too tired to participate. Along with the fatigue came a series of large, dark bruises that appeared all over Kylie’s body, and her mom said the girl didn’t recall how she might have gotten them.

And the symptoms continued to get worse, until one night in October, when Kylie went to her mother in desperation.

“She was crying and begging me to take her to the hospital,” remembered Merithew Lord.

Merithew Lord took her daughter to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where doctors performed a series of tests. That was on a Thursday night. By the following Monday, Kylie was admitted to the hospital, and that’s when Merithew Lord received the news no mother wants to hear — that her child had leukemia.

“It’s hard, because as a mother you want to kiss it better and make it go away,” said Merithew Lord.

That was the start of a long and hard battle for Kylie, who has since endured surgery to insert a port in her chest for the purpose of drawing blood and administering her series of chemotherapy treatments. The youth has since battled her way through high fevers, a blood transfusion and a dose of powerful steroids.

Soon, Kylie’s mane of long, straight hair began thinning from the rounds of chemotherapy she underwent, but Merithew Lord said as always, her extended family at Anglers came through to help Kylie get through the transition.

Sheila Hall, who is the daughter-in-law of Anglers owner Buddy Hall and a close friend of Merithew Lord’s, gave Kylie a new, chin-length haircut to give the appearance of thicker hair. In addition, Merithew Lord and her Anglers coworkers — whom Merithew Lord refers to as family — also built up a collection of cute hats for Kylie to sport when she returned to school.

Because Kylie was concerned about how her classmates might react to her disappearing hair, Merithew Lord said school staff talked to Kylie prior to her return to class to prepare the students for her change in appearance. In the meantime, Merithew Lord talked to Kylie about what’s really important when it comes to the people you love.

“I told her that it’s not your hair that they care about, it’s what’s inside that really matters,” said Merithew Lord.

All the while, Kylie received support from all over the county. Classmates of Sheila Hall’s children made Kylie get-well cards, as did the classmates of Buddy Hall’s daughter, Amy Nickerson, another close friend of Merithew Lord’s.

Soon after Kylie was diagnosed, the community organized a benefit walk-a-thon at Sears Island to assist the family with medical costs, for which about 200 people turned out.

Merithew Lord recalled how overwhelmed her daughter was to see how many people came to support her that day.

“She said, ‘Wow, are all these people here for me?’” said the mom with a smile.

And more people have since shown their love and support for the little girl by purchasing either a $1 or $5 paper fish at Anglers, a fundraising effort similar to what convenience stores do for the Muscular Dystrophy Association through sales of paper shamrocks. The restaurant started the effort, which has been affectionately referred to as “Kylie’s aquarium,” since Anglers started selling the paper fish shortly after Kylie was diagnosed in Octrober.

As of Friday, Dec. 10, there were 883 fish gracing the front windows at the restaurant, according to Anglers waitress and Kylie’s aquarium originator Sandy Bradeen. Bradeen, who has worked with Merithew Lord at Anglers for more than a decade, said she felt it was important to come up with a fundraiser that was specific to the family-run business and would not be a hardship for the restaurant’s patrons to participate in.

“It really makes you think, ‘What would I do if this were my child?’,” said Bradeen. “It’s a way of showing that there is strength in numbers.”

Bradeen thought the color purple would be appropriate, as it is the official color of leukemia awareness. When she brought the idea to the Hall family, Sheila Hall went to work crafting the paper fish, and the business began selling them immediately.

When asked how long the restaurant would continue selling the purple fish, Bradeen’s response was simple and heartfelt.

“As long as it takes,” she said.

And although Kylie recently learned that she is in remission, Merithew Lord said the road ahead remains long and hard. Kylie will continue taking medications and undergoing occasional rounds of chemotherapy for the next two and a half years. And while the family was very relieved to get the news of Kylie’s remission, Merithew Lord knows that leukemia will always be a part of her daughter’s life.

“She’ll have to be tested for the rest of her life,” said Merithew Lord. “…She’ll be 10 or 11 by the time she’s done with all this. She’s had to grow up too fast because of this; she’s wise beyond her years.”

The fish sales have been very well received — one customer bought $50 worth, while another local businessman purchased 100 of them, and left the fish blank so that children who come into the restaurant with their families can offer messages of support to Kylie, too.

Bradeen said in addition to the fish, those interested in contributing to the cause may also contact the restaurant and make a private donation, and all are welcome to make donations in memory of a loved one who lost a battle with cancer.

When she learned about the fish fundraiser that her coworkers had masterminded, Merithew Lord said she was overcome with gratitude.

“It’s just overwhelming, for one,” said Merithew Lord, who grew up in the Searsport area. “It reminds me that I’d rather live in a small community than a big one any day.”

The goal of Kylie’s aquarium, Bradeen said, is to cover all of the restaurant’s windows with the fish. Eventually, Bradeen said, the Anglers staff plans to place all of the fish in an album so that Kylie can keep them as a reminder of how much she is loved.

Merithew Lord said Kylie is reminded of that often, either when she stops in at the restaurant to see the latest additions to the collection of fish, or when she gets a smile and a hug from one of the many members of her Anglers family.

“She knows all the love that she’s got,” said Merithew Lord.

Those interested in contributing to the fundraiser at Anglers are invited to stop in and purchase a fish, or call the restaurant for more information at 548-2405.