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.”