Brandon Conaway spent his 14th birthday, about two weeks ago, at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.
It is the same place he had been for more than two months, and for a good portion of his life. There also have been stays at medical facilities in Hershey, Philadelphia and Cincinnati.
Bald Eagle Area senior soccer player Kiersten Walker — who has known Brandon all of his life — decided that was not a fun way to spend a childhood. She wanted to help.
As part of an effort spearheaded by Kiersten, Monday night’s Lady Eagles soccer game against Huntingdon at 6 p.m. in Alumni Stadium will be dedicated to Brandon and will raise money to help his family with medical and travel expenses. Fans are encouraged to wear white, or better yet, one of the “Kickin’ Out Autism” T-shirts Kiersten is selling. Proceeds from concession stand sales and raffle baskets at the game will also go to benefit the family — and a boy who hasn’t had it easy.
Heading into the weekend, Kiersten had sold 127 shirts and raised $4,142 total, even asking local business for contributions.
“Kiersten is just an amazing girl,” Brandon’s mother, Heather Conaway, said. “She just has a heart of gold.”
The list of obstacles for Brandon is long. He has autism, as well as genetic disorders Klippel-Feil syndrome, which affects the musculoskeletal system, and Wiedemann-Steiner syndrome, which impacts his digestive system and gastro-intestinal tract. He needs help to eat and process food.
Brandon just got home a few days ago from Danville, his third extended stay there just this year. The eighth-grader has hardly been in school the past year-and-a-half, and the Conaways are trying to line up a visit to a specialist in Florida.
Usually his mother is with him, able to work from the hospital while her husband, Mike, stays home for work and to be with their daughter, Ashley, a classmate of Kiersten and a member of the soccer team through her junior year. Heather called Ashley “a rock” for enduring the separation from her brother and mom.
“It’s not easy, it’s not ideal, but it’s our norm,” Heather said of the life the family has to lead. “It’s what we have to do to make sure he’s getting the care he needs.”
Kiersten’s mom, Stacey, has been friends with Heather Conaway for two decades, and their children grew up together. Kiersten and Ashley have been friends pretty much their entire lives, giving Kiersten a front-row view of Brandon’s ordeal.
“He’s been sick since birth, and she’s just taken a special bond to him and everything that’s he’s been through,” Heather said. “That’s just been in her nature to have that. For her to do this, I’m not surprised for her to take this on. But when I think about it, it’s amazing and we’re humbled and overwhelmed by what she’s able to do.”
Over the summer, Kiersten decided it was time to do something. It isn’t for school credit, or for recognition, but something that had to be done.
The Lady Eagles’ team captain talked to her teammates and coach Jared Moore, and everyone was more than willing to help.
“She’s just taken the ball and run with it,” said Moore, in his fourth season as head coach and seeing a special fundraiser associated with his program for the first time. “She hasn’t asked us for a whole lot. She’s been so proactive with it; it’s been so cool to watch her jump in with two feet and tackle this project.”
Kiersten has been playing soccer since kindergarten, and is hoping there might be a chance to play in college while she studies to become an athletic trainer. Using her favorite sport as a means to do something bigger — with the “Kickin’ Out Autism” shirts — seemed like an opportunity that could not be missed.
“They’ve gone through so much,” she said. “I wanted to do something, and I like soccer so much, so I wanted to incorporate it in both to help out a family.”
With Brandon back home from the hospital, the families are hopeful he can attend Monday’s special game. The logistics are tough with the medical accessories needed, but they know how much it would mean for both Kiersten and Brandon if he could be there for at least part of the contest.
Seeing what his team has accomplished already, and what’s to come Monday, has the Lady Eagles’ coach impressed.
“It’s kind of a proud moment,” Moore said. “It’s been cool watching her grow through high school, and it’s really neat to see the kids grab a hold of something like this. The kids at Bald Eagle really take care of each other.”
Kiersten gave a slightly embarrassed grin when asked what her original goal was during the summer for this project — about $1,000.
“We’ve already beat that, so we’re doing great,” she said.
And the Conaways are appreciative of what their friend is doing for them.
I don’t think she realizes she tossed a pebble and created a tidal wave.
“We want her to know how thankful we are for what she’s doing,” Heather said. “I hope some day she realizes and comes to understand what an impact she is having now, and we hope for future generations to come. I would love to see a student do this for a family. I told her mom, ‘I don’t think she realizes she tossed a pebble and created a tidal wave.’ ”