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'I just never knew a town could be so nice'

August 14, 2005|By TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

The temperature was approaching 95 in the city on Saturday afternoon, with a heat index of more than 100.

But the group of teenage girls dancing in the middle of a West End street seemed oblivious to the heat, swaying to the music pouring from the speakers set up along the side - a little country, a little soul, a lotta rhythm.

It's the kind of neighborhood where neighbors throw open their doors and tell people to have a seat.

And on Saturday, the whole block came together to support the family of a small boy with a big concern.

J.R. Curtis, who will be 9 on Sept. 10, has a rare form of brain cancer. His mother, Kathy Delling, was told in May that J.R. had less than six months to live. So she took an unpaid family medical leave from her job at Staples in order to spend as much time with him as she could.

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But without that income, keeping up their modest home has been a challenge.

"I've always worked, so going from a comfortable life to now, almost nothing, has been hard," Delling said.

The neighbors all know J.R. He plays with their children and grandchildren and has become a familiar part of Clarendon Avenue since he and his mother moved there from Columbia, Md., two years ago.

"We found out what was going on and we wanted to do something to help them," neighbor Les Moore said. "We were thinking and thinking and thinking, and I thought 'block party!'"

So Moore, along with friends and family members, started making calls and got donations from several local businesses of food and activities for the party, a fundraiser for J.R. and his mother. The city donated permits to close off the 400 block of Clarendon Avenue. And everybody prepared for a good time.

"I know he doesn't have a lot of time," said Moore, who lost a 2-year-old son to pneumonia. "I thought it was time for the community to come together to help this child."

J.R. is being sponsored by the Shirley B. Robison Fund, set up in memory of a Hagerstown woman who died from cancer in 1997. All donations go through the foundation, Moore said. Any money not used by the family will remain with the foundation.

"I like that, because any money left over will go to help another cancer victim," Moore said.

As for J.R., the heat eventually sent him inside, where he showed off a Spider-Man chair that converts to a small tent.

Delling worried he might not be up to a party Saturday.

"This past week has been rough," she said, as J.R. suffered fevers, and at one point "slept 20 hours straight."

But once the party got under way Saturday morning, she said, "everyone was dancing in the street, and he was enjoying it."

J.R. suffers from a primitive neuroectodermal tumor, a cancer that can develop in the brain and central nervous system or in sites outside the brain such as the limbs, pelvis and chest wall, according to the National Cancer Institute's Web site.

Because it is rare, Delling said, "the doctors can't tell me what to expect." J.R. takes seven medications in the morning, and eight at night - including steroids. He's had two surgeries; the latest was in January, Delling said.

"We've been battling this for four years," she said. "The fighting, it just became part of life. But now, there's no more treatments."

Delling moved to Hagerstown at the behest of her friend Stephanie Selby, a city resident whose own son was being treated for a heart condition while J.R. was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

They met while staying at the Ronald McDonald House, where they also met Michele Voigt of Pocomoke, Md., whose son R.J. died from cancer in 2003. Voigt made the trip from the Eastern Shore to be with Delling and J.R. on Saturday.

"These two used to come all the way from Hagerstown to be there for me," Voigt said.

Delling said that when Selby encouraged her to come to Hagerstown, "I laughed at her. But when I got up here, everyone was so nice."

Moore estimated that the neighborhood had raised nearly $1,000 for J.R. on Saturday. More fundraisers are planned, he said, and donation jars have been distributed at businesses around town.

Donations to the Shirley B. Robison Memorial Fund for J.R. may be made at any Hagerstown Trust location, or mailed to Hagerstown Trust, P.O. Box 189, Hagerstown MD 21740. Checks should be made payable to the fund, in honor of J.R. Curtis. Donations to the fund might be tax deductible, according to the fund's Web site.

It's a tough time for Delling, but her neighbors' generosity helps.

"It's great, it's good," she said, blinking back tears. "I just never knew a town could be so nice.

"Everyone is having an awesome time today - everyone on the block loves J.R. I just want to thank all of Hagerstown for everything they've done for me and J.R. I've never lived in such a nice town."

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