A generous wind is blowing at Parkway West High – as in Emily Wind, a junior at the school.
When Wind overheard a troubling conversation between Scott Bollman, building manager and custodian Ollie Caruthers, she knew someone needed to take action.
“I was trying not to eavesdrop,” admitted Wind. “But I heard the word ‘chemotherapy’ and it hit me hard.”
She explained that a friend’s mother went through cancer treatments about a year ago and knew that if Caruthers also was facing chemotherapy it was serious.
“After confiding in my dad, he encouraged me to be that person (the one to help). Despite being young, I could make an impact,” she explained.
Without knowing the full scope of Caruthers’ personal challenges, Wind and fellow junior Shannon Anderson oversaw a one-day collection during lunch. They were astonished by the generosity of their fellow classmates.
The goal was $50, but in just a short period of time, the girls collected $150.
“Kids emptied their pockets. It really showed everyone how important Ollie is to all of us,” Wind added.
About the same time, Caruthers’ full story unfolded.
Between last spring and this September, not only had the 72-year-old custodian been diagnosed with liver cancer, but his wife of 26 years had gone blind from diabetes complications.
Betsy Wait, a freshman and staff writer for the school newspaper The West Pathfinder, seized the opportunity to write a story about Ollie and the girls’ collection efforts. Yearbook and newspaper teacher Debra Klevens and English teacher Valerie Townsend used social media to share Wait’s article. What happened next began a viral chain reaction of grand proportions.
The posts were viewed and shared hundreds of times in the first few hours and people began asking how they could help. Through the suggestion of a Parkway alumna, Townsend and Klevens made the decision to create a “GoFundMe” page to pull in donations for Caruthers. The original goal was set at $500. In less than 24 hours, donations topped $3,000. In seven days, an additional $30,000 had been donated, beyond their wildest dreams.
Bollman and Keith Brown, maintenance generalist at the school, make up the team responsible for general maintenance in the building and they look after one another.
“We have always had each other’s back,” Brown said. “We lean on one another and balance each other out. We are just like a family.”
Staff members had been aware of Caruthers’ cancer diagnosis, but it wasn’t until they noticed he wasn’t eating very well and learned that his beloved wife, Barbara, was hospitalized, that they realized he could use extra support.
“Various staffers provide lunch for Ollie every day. Every other day, we provide dinner for him, with enough leftovers to carry him over,” Bollman said.
They also provided gift cards to help him through this difficult time, but nothing has had the impact of the GoFundMe page.
Messages of support accompany many of the monetary gifts coming in from as far away as Ohio and California, and speak to the impact Caruthers has on the students and the community.
In one note, the Sisk family wrote: “You’ve help take care of our kids and their school for so long. Now it’s time to help take care of you.”
In another, Johnisha W. wrote,:“Mr. Ollie was my favorite janitor. He was always so kind and went out of his way to do anything for anyone.”
A donation made on behalf of Molly S. said: “What a lovely way to honor a man who has given of himself for so long.”
With no local family to lean on for support and many challenges ahead, Caruthers can hardly put into words what this has meant to him and Barbara.
“(When they told me) I couldn’t believe it! I knew they liked me. But they love me!” he said. “Thank you for your kindness from the heart.”
Bollman added: “This is the West spirit, the camaraderie (of the school). They see something come out of the building that is worth supporting. I’m in awe of what’s happening for our Ollie.”