OMEGA -- Six-year-old Tanner Connell did something unusual on Oct. 26. He complained to his kindergarten teacher that he wasn't feeling well.
That complaint led to a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Today, hearts are heavy and people in this small South Georgia community are rallying to support Tanner.
Teacher Patricia Dunn said Tanner told her on that day that he had a sore throat. Knowing that he was not the complaining type, she immediately sent him to the school's nurse. From there, Tanner's parents took him to a physician who diagnosed strep throat.
The following Monday night, Tanner collapsed at home and had to be airlifted to Children's Medical Center in Augusta. He spent several days in the intensive care unit.
Dunn said Tanner's sudden illness left her feeling helpless and concerned, not only for Tanner but for the other students in her class.
"I have seen children who were abused and neglected over the years, but I knew what to do about that," Dunn said. "But with this, it just left me feeling helpless. We have all prayed a lot."
Dunn said she discussed with a counselor how to break the news to Tanner's classmates and friends. When she told them, several of the students suggested they pray for him.
Since they received the news, students have written letters and drawn pictures for Tanner.
Dunn said one of Tanner's drawings just days before his diagnosis seems now to have been his way to express how ill he felt. The students were assigned the task of drawing themselves wearing their Halloween costumes.
"Tanner had talked about dressing as a blue ninja, but when he drew, he used a red crayon to color himself from the neck to his belly button," Dunn said. "Students let us know how they are feeling through their artwork."
Tanner's mother, Faith, said the tumor in Tanner's chest is almost completely gone now thanks to chemotherapy treatments three days a week. Some of the treatments are administered in Tanner's thigh and others through a port in his chest.
"He is very weak and tired, but he is in good spirits," Connell said. "We have really been blessed."
Faith and her husband Steve both travel with Tanner to Augusta for his treatments.
"People have offered to drive us, but my husband and I can't imagine not going," Connell. "The main thing we are asking for is prayers."
Along with prayer support, community members are also conducting fund-raisers to help defray some of Tanner's medical expenses.
Omega Elementary School principal Pat Newsome has issued another challenge to students. If $400 is raised by Nov. 29, the school's Papa John's Pizza day, she will dance on the roof of the school. If $500 is raised, she will not only dance on the roof but dress as a clown.
"I must admit that I am afraid of high places, but I'll do what the kids want if it will inspire them," Newsome said. "Tanner told his mother that he would be there to see me dance on the roof, even if he had to wear his mask and sit in the car."
"We have been amazed at the outpouring from the community, not shocked because we have lived here all our lives," Connell said. "It makes things bearable knowing that you have family and friends praying for you. It is very important to us to let everyone know how much we appreciate everything."
Omega students, faculty and staff members have collected 75 gallons of aluminum can tabs so far, which Connell said will either be exchanged for overnight stays at Augusta's Ronald McDonald House or for Tanner's chemotherapy treatments. "Pennies for Tanner" has collected $350. Omega resident Grace Willis is donating 40 percent of her Tupperware sales to Tanner's family.
Anyone wishing to donate to any of these fund-raisers can call the school at 528-4293. Also, an account in Tanner's name has been established at South Georgia Banking Company for anyone who would like to contribute.
Dunn and fellow classmates look forward to Tanner's return.
"Tyler (Weeks) is keeping Tanner's seat warm," Dunn said.
To contact reporte
r Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.
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