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Gibson County students come together to help friend in need

By Cara Zarecor

Tristan Johnson, a 17-year-old student at Gibson County High School, member of Yorkville Cumberland Presbyterian Church and avid member of the FFA has friends and not just a few. Johnson is currently at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago undergoing treatment for a second intracranial hemorrhage that occurred on June 11.

Last week, several friends worked together to raise $25,000 for Johnson at the Gibson County Fair livestock show.

Johnson’s medical difficulties began back in September of 2015. He’d had no symptoms prior to the day he fell prey to a headache, collapsed and was later airlifted to LeBonheur in Memphis. Both he and his immediate family have undergone multiple tests, but so far no doctor has been able to determine the exact cause of these “brain bleeds.”

In February of 2017, Johnson suffered a spontaneous subarachnoid hemorrhage in the left frontal lobe of his brain, which doctors said was caused from a cavernous malformation. He had surgery and through the prayers of many, miraculously recovered. This past June, another brain bleed struck Johnson; this time on the right side of his brain.

As Johnson fights for his life in Chicago alongside his mother, father and stepmother, all his friends back home are doing all they can to help him and his family.

“When this boy should be learning how to drive, he is having to learn how to walk and talk all over again,” said Mack Zarecor, an upstanding board member of the Jr. Livestock Association, who is also a strong advocate for folks in need through his involvement in community events. Zarecor had recently taken part in Yorkville Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s steak sandwich sale, at which $8,400 was cleared for Johnson’s cause. That event drew twice the crowd as was expected.

Board members of the Jr. Livestock Association voted in favor of holding the fundraiser, and Zarecor, along with a few others like local auctioneer and dairy farmer Brent Crooms, surprised the fair crowd with the fundraiser for Johnson after the livestock sponsorship sale. The fundraiser was kept mostly secret up until it happened because organizers didn’t want sponsors to hold back on their monetary rewards to the other students. Zarecor said that Darrell Ridgely of Ridgely Auction & Realty heard about the secret fundraiser and made the starting pledge of $5,000 over the phone. Adults and businesses then began pledging, but when all the FFA and 4H students began pledging the money they’d received from their animal sponsorship sales, “There was not a dry eye in the house,” Zarecor said.

“It’s always been a blessing to be a part of the agricultural community here,” Crooms said. “We are family.” He said that folks who normally can’t give very much were even pledging $200-$300 apiece. When I asked about his response to all the students coming forth to help Johnson he said, “The next generation has proven that they’ll help a community member in need. They’ve been raised right.”

Haleigh Haynes, a senior at Gibson County High School, has been very close friends with Johnson practically all their lives. From the time they were four or five years old, she and Johnson have ridden four-wheelers, jet-skied, and participated in all sorts of events together, she said. Their fathers graduated high school together, so their families were also close. She was one of the students willing to hand over her prize money to help Johnson.

“Money is just a number,” Haynes said. “Tristan means more to me than that money does any day.” As she broke into tears she added, “He’s a great kid. He didn’t deserve for this to happen to him, so he deserves any amount of money he can get to help out.”

Eli Stone, a junior at the high school, said he has known Johnson for a few years and what he likes so much about him is that he is always happy and always makes people smile. He also pledged his sponsorship money.

“I just think a little bit of money; that’s not going to affect my life, but when we can get people together and can donate like that, it can really change Tristan’s life and his story,” Stone said.

Branten Smith, also a junior, said that he has known Johnson since the beginning of high school. He said that Johnson loved to talk about his cows and would always come up to him to show him pictures of his cows and tell funny stories about them. He also was compelled to give to Johnson.

“I’d rather be able to say I helped Tristan rather than be able to say I have this much money,” Smith said

All three students said this was the first time they’d ever been given a chance to “give back,” and that “it felt amazing.” They went on to explain that at least 30 students were in line to make pledges at the fair and that some were kids from other schools who didn’t even know Johnson; they’d only heard his story.

Two of the common factors that all these high school friends have are Ag teachers Derek and Lyndsey Norman.

“When these students have an animal, they learn to care for another life other than their own every single day,” Lyndsey Norman said. “They pay for the animal and then pay to feed it. When they receive their sponsorship money at the sale, a lot of times it goes to help purchase their next animal, put money in their gas tanks or goes to college funds. When I saw them giving their sale proceeds to Johnson’s cause, I knew they’d have to work twice as hard to get money for their own needs from somewhere else.”

Zarecor said that Johnson was flown from LeBonheur to Chicago by a Leer jet at the beginning of August, and that the LeBonheur hospital has treated Johnson and his family with exceptional care. One of the biggest out-of-pocket expenses that have been so hard are the hotel stays, upwards of $300 per night, for Johnson’s family members. The $25,000 will hopefully help ease that hardship along with some of the other expenses of Johnson’s treatment.

“No one knows what Tristan’s prognosis is but God,” Zarecor said, as tears welled in his reddened eyes. Johnson is making progress, but it is slow and his six-days-per-week therapy is intense and difficult.

Follow Johnson’s progress on Facebook by joining the public group “Tristan Gage Johnson’s Journey for Another Miracle” page. To donate to his Johnson and his family, contact Zarecor directly at 731-643-8810. Prayers are greatly needed and appreciated, Zarecor said.

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