PAOLA — Strong Wright was 12 years old when he told his parents he wanted to get baptized, but he found himself struggling to choose a Bible verse for his life.
“How does God speak?” he asked his father, Thomas.
Thomas smiled at his son and said, “Ask God to tell you what your verse should be.”
Later, while listening to Toby Mac’s song “I Just Need U,” Strong felt an immediate connection to the lyrics.
“I think God talked to me,” he told his father.
Strong was baptized in March of 2019, and his verse was Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing… Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Looking back on it now, Thomas and his wife Jennifer said they believe God was preparing Strong for the battle ahead.
When Strong started having headaches a couple of years ago, Thomas and Jennifer thought he may have inherited a migraine condition from his biological mother Holly Schmitt.
But when Strong started dry heaving in the mornings in November 2019, Thomas and Jennifer turned to doctors to help them find out what was wrong.
An MRI on Nov. 10 confirmed that Strong had a brain tumor, and a follow-up biopsy Nov. 12 confirmed that the cancer is pineoblastoma, which is a rare, aggressive cancer that begins in the cells of the brain’s pineal gland.
It was devastating news for Strong and his family, but their faith was unwavering, and the community quickly rallied behind them.
Strong even got to lead the Paola Panther football team onto the field Friday, Nov. 15, and he cheered them on to victory as they claimed the Class 4A sectional title.
Five days later, Strong was on the operating table as surgeons removed 90 percent of the tumor.
Thomas said it was a major surgery that typically leaves patients in a coma for up to five days, but Strong woke up two hours afterward.
“He was legally blind and couldn’t walk, but he could still beat me in sticks,” Thomas said.
Strong tackled his rehab head-on and continued to boldly profess his faith to all who would listen. Thomas said his son quickly became a favorite of the hospital staff.
“The nurses would come to him for counsel,” Thomas said.
As rehabilitation continued in the days that followed, Thomas said there were some difficult discussions that took place in that hospital room, but the family all agreed on two rules.
“High fives in and out, and you can only speak life in that room,” he said.
Later that month, on Nov. 29, Strong celebrated his 13th birthday.
Following God’s lead
During Strong’s second 10-hour surgery, Jennifer was busy on the computer, researching everything she could about brain tumors in children.
She learned about Izabella Phoenix Voelker, a teenager from Nebraska, who also was diagnosed with a pineoblastoma brain tumor.
After a little more research, Jennifer was even able to track down’s Izabella’s mother, who advised Thomas and Jennifer to pursue proton radiation therapy that is extremely accurate and decreases the risk of damage to the other organs.
“Nobody can orchestrate that but God,” Thomas said.
The nearest facility is the S. Lee Kling Proton Therapy Center next to Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital in St. Louis.
Thomas, Jennifer and Strong visited the facility in December 2019, and established a treatment schedule that required Thomas and Jennifer to take turns traveling back and forth.
The Wrights initially weren’t sure how they were going to cover the cost of travel and temporary lodging, but a fundraiser at Living Proof Church ended up raising the exact amount they needed.
“God just lined everything up,” Thomas said.
Strong’s proton radiation therapy wrapped up in late March, when he was told to take a six-week break before another multi-month schedule of chemotherapy.
The family, though, is now facing a new obstacle, as doctors discovered a new brain tumor during one of Strong’s recent MRIs.
Surgeons used a Gamma Knife procedure on the new tumor on May 28, and Strong’s new chemotherapy regimen began June 5.
Strength for Strong
A community fundraiser for Strong was initially planned to take place in March, but it was later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new Strength for Strong fundraiser, though, has been scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. Saturday, June 27, in Building No. 2 at the Miami County Fairgrounds.
The event will feature a hot dog dinner and silent and live auctions to benefit Strong and his family. The dinner will take place from 5 to 6 p.m., the silent auction will last from 5 to 8 p.m., and the live auction will start at 6:30 p.m.
The suggested donation is $5 per person, and children 5 and under are free.
All attendees are asked to wear their favorite football jersey to help celebrate Strong’s love of football.
Anyone wanting to donate auction items are encouraged to call Michele Donner Bridges at (913) 731-2397, Heather Falconbridge Grandon at (913) 315-2010, Barb Fehling-Fisher at (913) 731-5374 or Chris-Ava Keimig at (913) 285-2594.
Faith over fear
Thomas said his son continues to amaze him.
When he is asked who is his idol, he says “Jesus.” When he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he says “a pastor.” When Make a Wish Foundation asked him where he wants to go, he said “Jerusalem.”
“It’s humbling to us,” Thomas said, adding that the hardest thing for a parent is to turn over control and “give your child to God.”
Thomas said it was difficult to hear his son ask doctors if this cancer is fatal, but his message to Strong is that nothing is fatal if we have faith.
Strong has embraced that message.
“I don’t care what happens to my body, because I know where my soul is going,” Strong said.
He even started writing a worship song.
One of the lyrics says: “I don’t want to lose control, but if I do, I don’t want to find it again.”
“He manages fear,” Thomas said. “Jesus is holding a spear in his mind.”
PAOLA — One year after a one-vehicle accident just north of Lake Miola took the lives of two young people, the teenage driver has been charged in connection with the incident.
Kelsey M. Lester, 19, was booked into Miami County Jail on Tuesday, June 16.
Lester, who is formerly of Paola but was most recently living in Olathe, has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, as well as a charge of interference with a law enforcement officer; conceal/alter/destroy evidence in a felony.
Her next court date is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday, June 30.
Lester, who was 18 when the fatal accident took place Saturday, June 15, 2019, was driving a 2008 Chevrolet HHR west on 287th Street north of Lake Miola when it left the roadway and struck a bridge pillar, according to a Miami County Sheriff’s Office news release.
Lester and another passenger were injured in the crash and taken to an area hospital in critical condition. The other two occupants, Brandon Guilfoyle-Pace, 22, of Greeley and Jocelyn Razo, 17, of Osawatomie were pronounced dead at the scene, according to the release.
Lester would later post on Facebook that she lost her “best friend” and “love of my life” in the accident.
The two manslaughter charges while under the influence of alcohol or drugs also include alternative charges of involuntary manslaughter, reckless; and vehicular homicide.
The interference with a law enforcement officer in a felony case charge also includes an alternative charge of interference with a law enforcement officer in a misdemeanor case.
According to court documents outlining the charges, Lester is accused of unintentionally killing two people “while operating a motor vehicle under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs to a degree that rendered the defendant incapable of safely driving a vehicle”
She also is accused of concealing, destroying or materially altering evidence with the intent to prevent or hinder the apprehension or prosecution of a person.
The two primary involuntary manslaughter charges are level four felonies punishable by 38 to 172 months in prison and a possible fine not to exceed $300,000.
The alternative involuntary manslaughter, reckless charge is a level five felony punishable by 31 to 136 months in prison and a possible fine not to exceed $300,000.
The alternative vehicular homicide charge is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a possible fine not to exceed $2,500.
The primary interference with a law enforcement officer in a felony case charge is a level eight felony punishable by seven to 23 months in prison and a possible fine not to exceed $100,000.
The alternative interference with a law enforcement officer in a misdemeanor case charge is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a possible fine not to exceed $2,500.
Lester is being held on $100,000 bond, but her attorney recently filed a request to reduce the bond to $15,000 cash or surety.
The motion, which was filed in Miami County District Court on June 17, states that Lester is not an immediate danger to the community and points out that the prosecution waited a year to take her into custody.
The motion also states that Lester has a support network of multiple family members in Paola, and the court could ensure she is not using alcohol or drugs by conducting random drug testing, forcing her to wear a sweat patch or utilizing a mobile breath test machine.
The motion also states that, once the warrant was issued, Lester turned herself into authorities after attending a prescheduled appointment with a cardiologist. Lester also is set to undergo an echocardiogram and wear a heart monitor to try and determine the source of an irregular heartbeat.
The defense cited all of that information as reasons why Lester’s bond should be reduced.
“Paying a bond of $100,000 will not make it more likely that Ms. Lester will appear in court or protect the community,” the motion states.
Lester is being represent- ed by Carl Folsom III of Lawrence. Folsom recently was selected by Gov. Laura Kelly to fill a vacancy on the Kansas Court of Appeals, but the nomination did not receive the necessary votes in the Kansas Senate.
Miami County is the first county in Kansas with a population over 30,000 to meet its response rate from the 2010 Census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Census Bureau’s data released June 14 indicates Miami County has met its 2010 response rate, with 72.9 percent of residents having responded to the 2020 Census.
“The Census Bureau would like to extend our congratulations to the people of Miami County for their high response rate,” said Cathy Lacy, regional director of the Denver/Dallas U.S. Census Bureau. “Your response matters and will help your community get the accurate count it needs to secure federal funding for critical public services and political representation.”
Spring Hill leads all communities in the county with a response rate of 75.1 percent, followed closely by Louisburg at 74.6 percent and Paola at 72.2 percent. Osawatomie’s 64.2 percent response nearly matches the state of Kansas’ current rate of 65.4 percent. Fontana trails a 51.6 percent. In neighboring Franklin County, Ottawa has a response rate of 67.1 percent.
The Census Bureau’s online response rate map shows response rates by state, city, county and census tract. Households in Kansas that have yet to respond can complete the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail, according to the Census Bureau. Households that do not respond to the census will receive a visit from a census taker later this summer who will help them respond, according to the bureau.
Miami County’s response rate compares favorably with other counties in the region. Here’s a look at response rates in surrounding counties:
The Census Bureau encourages the public to respond online at 2020census.gov. Households can respond online in English or 12 other languages or by phone. Households can also respond by mail using the paper questionnaire, according to a Census Bureau news release.
Required by the U.S. Constitution, the once-a-decade census must count every person living in the United States, according to the release.
“Census results shape the future of communities, as census data informs how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed for health clinics, school lunch programs, disaster recovery initiatives and other critical programs and services for the next 10 years,” according to the Census Burreau.
For more information about the Census, go to 2020census.gov.
PAOLA — Coronavrius (COVID-19) is not going to prevent the Aug. 4 primary from taking place, but advance voters will be casting their ballots in a new location across the street.
Advance voting for the primary will take place at the former sheriff’s office/jail building next to the Miami County Courthouse on Pearl Street instead of in the Miami County Administration Building.
“One of the biggest changes is we won’t be doing advance voting in our building. We’re trying to mitigate some risk by not having that many people in and out of our building,” County Clerk/Election Officer Janet White said. “We’re going to use the old sheriff’s office across the street.”
Voters will enter through the building’s breezeway where they will be guided to the proper location. The handicap accessible entrance will be located at the door on the south side of the building, which is also being used as one of the exits.
“We’re going to have two exits and one (main) entrance to try to keep everything moving and to try to maintain social distancing,” White said.
The bigger of the two offices at the south end of the building is where voters will check-in, and the smaller office next to it will be used by provisional voters.
All other voters will go cast their ballots in the former offices of the sheriff and undersheriff. Election machines will be set up in both of those offices as well as a reception area in front of the offices. Voters will be directed to the proper location.
Machines will be spaced six feet apart for social distancing and individuals waiting to vote will be asked to stand six feet apart.
Because of space limitations, some of the voting machines will be placed back-to-back. And since those machines will not be six feet apart, White is encouraging married couples or others traveling together to get in line together and vote at the back-to-back machines.
“We’re actually hoping that if you are a married couple you will come through the line as one, and then the next person would be six feet behind you,” White said. “If you come together, we hope to have you vote basically next to one another. It won’t be six feet apart but it will allow us to continue to move that line a little faster.”
Hand sanitizer will be available at the start and end of the voting process, White said. All of the equipment will be wiped down after each voter casts a ballot.
“We’re actually going to do it in front of the next voter so that they feel more secure in that the machine has just been freshly wiped down,” White said.
Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be available for poll workers, who will also be behind Plexiglass which is often referred to as a sneeze guard.
Poll workers will be on a rotation so they can go wash their hands periodically to help mitigate risk since they will be handling some items that are touched by voters.
Workers also will be available to help the public start their voting sessions by inserting the paper ballot in the machine before leaving the voter alone to cast their ballot in private.
White anticipates needing a few more poll workers at the advance ballot location than in the past to not only assist voters with the relatively new election equipment but also to direct voters to the proper location and to do frequent sanitizing.
“Because it is so spread out and the rooms are so small, you can’t see from one room to the other in the old sheriff’s building. We’re going to have to have people stationed along the way there to assist voters,” White said. “We want to make it the best experience for the voter that we can possibly make it.”
In-person advance voting will begin July 15, which is also the date advance ballots will be mailed to those who have requested them. By mid-June, the clerk’s office had received about 800 requests for advance ballots.
“We haven’t had that many for a primary for quite some time,” White said.
With Louisburg and Prairie View school bond elections on the Aug. 4 ballot, as well as some contested races, White is anticipating a larger in-person turnout for the primary as well.
The clerk’s office is offering additional hours and extending hours in an effort to minimize the need for lines at the polling site to also help mitigate the coronavirus risk.
The advance ballot site will be available Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., beginning July 18. The location also will remain open after business hours until 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 23, and Thursday, July 30, for advance voting.
The voter registration deadline is July 14. White reminds voters who have changed addresses or who have changed their name — through marriage or other reason — since the last election to make sure their information is accurate before the July 14 deadline to keep them from having to cast a provisional ballot.
In these uncertain times with the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, White said one certainty is that there will be an Aug. 4 primary election. And she said her staff is going to do everything possible to keep voters and workers safe.
“My biggest concern is that I don’t want anybody to get sick,” White said. “I don’t want a worker or a voter to have gotten ill from trying to cast their vote. At the same time, I want to accommodate their wishes — whether it’s by mail-in ballot or in person.”