Town raises money for boy
WAYNESBORO — One 11-year-old boy has brought more than 400 people together — some are kin, some are friends and some are strangers.
Justin Harris was diagnosed with cancer last year. He divides his time among St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, his home in Crimora and Hugh K. Cassell Elementary School.
Justin loves to talk, play video games and barbecue — he's even a junior barbecue champ.
John Atkins, a family friend who considers himself family, organized Saturday's barbecue fundraiser to help the family. He managed to get all the food donated, so all the proceeds go to the family, who will use the money to offset their increased expenses. Atkins owns the Barbecue Connection in Palmyra and has national trophies in barbecuing.
"This little town has a focus of such great magnitude it's unbelievable," said Atkins, his voice cracking from sadness. "We want to tell everybody thank you."
Like Atkins, many of the barbecuers came from away, some traveled from Pennsylvania, others from North Carolina and Richmond. Most woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. to get here in time, Atkins said.
Although the research hospital pays for Justin's treatment, his family must travel every few weeks to Memphis.
"He can't go by plane, because of the large doses of chemotherapy," said his father, Mark Harris.
Since treatment started, the family had to buy a car, a "more reliable" one," Harris said.
Mark Harris continues to work as an emergency medical technician, but takes more days off than he used to. Even with the hospital's help, the family's expenses have overwhelmed their budget.
Justin's mother, Chris, had to stop baby-sitting, and her other children, Stacey, 8, and Anna, who turns 6 today, have to stay with their grandparents more often.
This is the third fundraiser for the family. Both the school and the Crimora Players had fundraisers last year.
"It's just overwhelming," said Joe Harris, Justin's grandfather. "Most everything has been donated."
An hour into the event more than 250 meals were sold, not including the ones that were called in — like the 26 meals for Invista employees. Atkins planned for 500 meals, but after an hour of serving, he realized that he might run out of food.
"It's overwhelming," Mark Harris said. "Lots of people are coming. I don't know many of them."
"We really don't know the little boy," said Angel Payne who brought her kindergartner. "We just came out to support the cause and enjoy the music."
Elaine Wine, a librarian at A.R. Ware Elementary, brought her family for the same reason, as did Staunton Councilwoman Rita Wilson.
"I thought this was a good cause," Wilson said.
The cafeteria was filled with strangers sitting with strangers enjoying the bluegrass music of "Across the Miles," five of the musicians came in from West Virginia.
"Mark's a friend of mine and he asked me to play," said guitarist Robert Richardson."We can all pray for him, but we can do a little more."
Like Richardson, the Glenns came out to support their friends.
"We came to support the family," said Mary Glenn, who attends church with the Harris family. "He's a strong young man. We look forward to the updates his grandparents give."
The newest update came on Friday.
"He got a report that his tumors right now are stabilized," his father said. "Last time they shrank, this time they're the same."
Justin planned to be at the barbeque event. An honor-roll student, he loves school and friends. But some unexpected tests came up, so he and his mother had to stay behind in Tennessee.
"He (Justin) is unbelievable to face adversity the way he's done," said Atkins, who became friends with Mark Harris at a competition. "I'm not just a barbecue buddy. I hope I'm a member of the family."
Atkins, who also works as a surgical technician at the University of Virginia, said Justin asked him to be there in his scrubs when he had his first surgery.
"He thanked me for being there. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," said Atkins, whose 10-year-old son, Bryant, is one of Justin's best friends. "I've been there crying with them."