TUNNEL - In the past, Little Hocking resident and recent Warren High School graduate Matt Hill wondered, in the abstract, how it would feel to be told you had cancer.
In February, the high school senior found out.
"When it actually happens, it's just kind of mind-numbing. It's almost unbelievable at first," he said.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Warren Elementary sixth-grader Austin Francis, left, shakes hands with Matt Hill, right, and Hill’s father, John, after presenting Hill with an iTunes gift card during an assembly Wednesday at the school. The class bought the card so Hill could get things to entertain him while he undergoes treatment for cancer.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Warren Elementary sixth-graders welcomed Matt Smith, a 2013 Warren High School graduate, to their school with signs like this Wednesday to present him with gift certificates and an activity bag aimed at helping him during his treatment for cancer.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Traci Nichols performs at Warren Elementary School Wednesday to thank sixth-graders who stuffed BrAva bags for children undergoing cancer treatment. The organization was named in part for Nichols’ daughter Ava, who passed away last year while battling cancer.
Fear and uncertainty about the future followed Hill's diagnosis with Ewing's sarcoma, a very rare form of bone cancer. But then came the response from his community, classmates and people he'd never met.
"Once you come back and see how much people love you and all the ... support you have, it makes everything almost worth it," Hill said.
Gifts from Warren Elementary students during a special assembly on Wednesday were yet another example of that support.
Fellow students at Warren High School could be seen in recent weeks wearing shirts that said "Team Matt" on the front and bore a quote from Walt Disney on the back: "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."
High school Principal Dan Leffingwell said every one of Hill's fellow seniors wore "Team Matt" shirts at Friday's graduation and many folks in the audience did as well.
Proceeds from the sale of those shirts went to the recent Washington County Relay for Life. Students also raised about $2,500 through a volleyball tournament earlier this month to help Hill's family with expenses.
"It's very uplifting. ... It's what helps me get through all the treatments," Hill said.
According to Leffingwell, Hill is giving as well as receiving.
"At a time when Matt needs our support, he seems to be the one inspiring others," he said, referring to the positive attitude and courageous nature Hill's displayed.
Hill is keeping that positive attitude even as he faces something many people would have trouble imagining - his right foot is scheduled to be amputated from the mid-calf down in June.
"In a way, I'm kind of excited for it ... I'm ready to get the cancer out of me," Hill said. "I think the scariest part is just knowing there's something inside of you that's eating away at your body."
Students at Hill's other alma mater, Little Hocking Elementary, donated the money they raised at their Relay Recess event this month to the local Relay for Life in his honor.
And on Wednesday, Hill became the first recipient of a BrAva bag assembled by sixth-graders at Warren Elementary School.
The bags, which take their name from a local organization formed to help families facing childhood cancer and spread awareness of those diseases, contain items designed to entertain and keep a patient occupied during therapy sessions, when they often can move around very little.
Each bag contains a bookmark with a photo and information about one of the 26 students and adults killed in the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
It was that incident that inspired the sixth-graders to take on the BrAva bag project. In addition to children's hospitals in Ohio and West Virginia, a bag will be sent to each Sandy Hook victim's family.
Students raised more than $1,000 on top of $50 in seed money they received from the school's PTO, said sixth-grade teacher Tracey Huck
"It became bigger than, I think, any of us thought," said sixth-grader Diamond Decker.
The students gave Hill three gift cards - one for iTunes, one for Amazon and one for his parents' gasoline expenses taking him to Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. The gasoline card was presented by Zachary Hulsey, who said his family has had to make their own frequent trips to Columbus after a diagnosis he received last year.
"I spent a lot of money on going up to hospitals - well, my mom did," he said.
On crutches, Hill took the stage to tell the students how much he appreciated what they'd done.
"It's turned out to be one of the best years of my life so far, and it's because of you guys and people like you who decided they wanted to change the world for the better," he said. "And you have changed the world for the better."
Students said they were excited to have Hill be the first person to receive one of the 80 bags they packed. Several said the project, which they started in December, has been personal for them since they've had family members diagnosed with and even die from cancer.
Sixth-grader Rylee Holland is a cancer survivor. She and her classmates want to keep raising money and filling BrAva bags as they continue in school.
"We want to make it bigger," she said. "We want to make it to where, like, half the world knows" about BrAva.
That sounded like "the best idea ever" to Traci Nichols, whose daughter Ava, 6, passed away in March 2012 after a two-year battle with cancer. Ava's name was combined nearly three years ago with Marietta cancer survivor Bridget Crock's to create the name BrAva.
Prior to the students' presentation to Hill, Waterford resident Traci Nichols played guitar and sang songs by Miranda Lambert, Adele, Taylor Swift and more for the students.
"It was just kind of my way to give thanks to the kids for doing everything for BrAva and remembering my girl," Nichols said.
After Nichols performed, a number of sixth-graders sang a song for her: "Somewhere Out There," which they'd performed last year at their fifth-grade concert and dedicated to Ava before the BrAva project had even been thought about.
"It means the world to me, more than the world to me," Nichols said of how the students continue to honor Ava. "That's one of your biggest fears: (After) they rally as a community, it would fade away."