It was a pretty low-key first meeting.

At about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Katie Smith walked into Randy’s Drive-in in Carl Junction, where works 10 to 15 hours a week. She spotted the young man in the wheelchair sipping on an Oreo milkshake and approached him.

“Hi, are you Brice?” Katie said with smile.

“Yes,” Brice Porter said shyly.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Katie said.

Of course, by then, Brice had heard a lot about Katie. About three weeks ago, Katie organized a fundraiser for Brice at the drive-in. The event, which seemingly drew the entire town of Carl Junction, raised a significant amount of money for Brice and his family to help offset expenses related to his medical condition.

Brice, 14, is fighting a form of bone cancer. Earlier this year, doctors discovered a tumor in his leg. For several months, Brice and his mother, Jenny Staggs, have been staying at the Ronald McDonald House near the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. Brice has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments, and on April 27 he is scheduled to have a portion of his leg removed.

On Wednesday, Jenny and Brice had a rare free day. They zipped down to Joplin to visit Brice’s classmates at South Middle School and drove to Carl Junction to meet Katie.

Last week, I met up with Katie at Randy’s Drive-in to talk about the fundraiser and the folks in Carl Junction. Katie, who has a younger brother Brice’s age, said that when she heard about Brice and what he was going through, she knew she had to do something to help, even though had never met the Joplin teenager or anyone in his family.

Well, that’s not entirely true. When Katie started working on the fundraiser, she discovered that she did know Brice’s father, Matt Porter. It turned out that Matt has been a regular customer at Randy’s, and Katie has waited on him many times. It also turned out that Katie’s father and Matt went to school together and had known each other for years.

That’s the sort of stuff that happens in small towns. Everyone tends to know everyone else whether they know it or not.

After a few minutes of chitchat Wednesday, Brice’s shyness began to wear off. He talked about his time in Kansas City, and how his treatments can sometimes zap him of his energy and rob him of his appetite.

Katie and Brice talked some more and joked a bit. Brice smiled while he talked. Brice smiles a lot. His is a tired smile, but it’s a smile nonetheless. Both Jenny and Matt told me that Brice is a pretty tough kid. They said he tends to stay on a pretty even keel — something that, I imagine, would be tough to do while undergoing chemotherapy and facing the loss of part of a leg.

On Wednesday, Brice also got a chance to see his 8-year-old sister. He and Jenny manage to make it back to Joplin about once a month. Jenny said the arrangement makes it tough for Brice and for the entire family. While Jenny is gone, her husband, Jeff, who is Brice’s stepfather, handles things at home. Matt drives up to Kansas City for every one of Brice’s chemo treatments.

See, a serious illness doesn’t just affect the patient. A serious illness tends to test the strength of an entire family. It also will tend to test the generosity of others. A serious illness might, for example, inspire a young woman in college to organize a fundraiser for a 14-year-old kid she had never met. It also might inspire an entire community to come together and do what it can to help.

By the way, some folks in Carl Junction have organized another fundraiser for Brice. On April 23, the group is hosting a Brice Porter event at the Downstream Casino Resort. For information, you can call 417-649-6419 or 417-649-6140.

Also, on May 4, the folks at Brice’s school will host a motorcycle show. Jenny said the teachers, staff and students at South Middle School have been amazing. She said the school has organized several fundraising events, and Brice said he has received more than 600 cards and letters from his classmates. He said that when he visited the school on Wednesday, the entire eighth-grade class showed up in the school gymnasium to welcome him back. I asked Brice how that made him feel.

“Crowded,” he said with a smile. “Well, maybe that’s not the right word. Overwhelmed is how I felt.”

Jenny nodded her head when Brice used the word “overwhelmed.” She said the way people like Katie have responded to Brice’s illness has been overwhelming. Then she looked directly at Katie.

“I don’t think there is one word that you can say to describe it. All I can say is thank you,” Jenny said, and then paused for a second before she continued.

“And that is coming from the heart.”

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