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People give from the heart to aid accident victim

November 23, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

BLUE RIDGE SUMMIT, Pa. -- What mattered most to Alyssa Austin on Sunday was not the long months recovering from an accident or the hundreds of people contributing financially to that recovery, but rather the prospect of eating cake at her benefit dinner.

But for the 3-year-old's parents, it was the people cooking and consuming that meal that had the biggest impact.

"They say we're all family here and they're taking care of their family," said Silver Austin, Alyssa's mother.

More than $1,200 in proceeds for the Austins came from beef and ham potpie dinners sold at the Blue Ridge Fire Hall and donations collected in a firefighter's boot placed near the entrance. The Waynesboro, Pa., girl was hit by a dump truck on Sept. 24 in Mercersburg, Pa.

"This little girl wasn't expected to live," said Stewart McCleaf, whose family and bus company partnered with the fire department for the fundraiser.

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About 100 people had purchased meals within the first hour and a half after the doors opened. They ate meat, coleslaw, applesauce and cake for a cause that McCleaf predicted would be a success regardless of how much people have nowadays for discretionary spending.

"With something like this, people pour their hearts out to someone in need. It's not an economy thing, it's a heart thing," he said.

Among the diners were Waynesboro's Richard and Pat Shew, who wanted to help Alyssa's recovery and had a good meal in the process.

"I'm stuffed," Pat Shew said. "The beef potpie and coleslaw were wonderful."

Alyssa maneuvered around the dining room in her wheelchair, clutching a stuffed bear as her father, Kenneth Austin, pushed her. The child can walk to some extent, but undergoes occupational and physical therapy to build strength and movement after three leg surgeries. She has a mark on her cheek where she bit through it, and recent test results placed her eight months behind normal development due to her brain injuries.

Silver Austin didn't hesitate with her answer when asked what she will be most thankful for this Thanksgiving.

"That she's here, that's what I'm thankful for," she said.

Alyssa's mother remembers every instant of what happened that September evening. Silver Austin remembers yelling for the girl to stop as she ran onto South Park Avenue, remembers seeing the truck hit her and remembers yelling for help amid panic.

"We knew it was bad from listening to the actual dispatch of the call," said Jim McCleaf, president of the Blue Ridge Fire and Rescue Squad. He soon learned that the child involved belonged to two of his members and requested that the department chaplain join Silver Austin on the trip to Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center, where Alyssa was flown for treatment.

Jim McCleaf said the "family" of the fire department wanted to help the Austins, both through Sunday's dinner and again at Christmas.

"We're trying to take a little burden off the parents," he said.

The Austins said their finances are tight, especially considering the medical bills put on a family with one income. Silver Austin spends her days caring for a recovering little girl who loves "Dora the Explorer" and the "Backyardigans."

"Since I rejoined the fire company (last December), we all get along. When one's in trouble, everyone rallies around to help," Kenneth Austin said.

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