STRAUGHN, Ind. (AP) — The living room floor of Allison Smith’s house is usually covered with Hot Wheels cars. Her 6-year-old son, Jackson, creates little towns and car shows for them.
Smith guesses his personal collection is close to 2,000. But that large number is bittersweet.
Jackson started gathering the toy cars while going through chemotherapy. The Hot Wheels were his “poke prize.” He got a new one each time his port was accessed.
At first it was a kind nurse at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health who set new ones aside for Jackson. Then Smith started stashing five to 10 in the family’s “hospital backpack,” so she was always ready.
“That distraction is everything when you’re in that clinic room,” Smith said. “That minute of excitement.”
Doctors found Jackson’s brain tumor when he was 13 months old. He was violently vomiting and Smith took him to the emergency room at least five times. At first, doctors looked for allergies or digestive issues, she said.
Three days after they found the tumor, Jackson had brain surgery to remove it. But six months after that, growth showed up on his regular MRI. It was back, and that meant chemotherapy for Jackson and a new Hot Wheels car every week.
Among all her concerns for Jackson’s health and future, Smith was still worried about raising a generous and giving child. Jackson was too young to know that he was receiving special treatment, she said.
“I can see how that may have led him to have expectations of it,” she said. “I don’t want him to be spoiled.”
So she started a Cars for Chemo drive and had Jackson help her collect Hot Wheels for other children. Over the past four years, Smith estimates they’ve collected more than 10,000 cars. They deliver boxes full of them to Riley.
“I want him to get the experience kind of paying forward this kindness that has been given to us,” Smith said. “There’s something about a little kid handing something to another little kid. You can just kind of see that connection in him. The ‘Oh, this kid is just like me and I’m helping him.'”
Jackson was declared to have “no evidence of disease” after 42 chemotherapy treatments. Doctors told Allison there was a .001 percent chance the tumor would return.
His family — including his father, Jason, and sister, Charlotte — continued collecting Hot Wheels and started holding the car show Jalopies for Jackson to raise more awareness and money. Jackson went through preschool, then kindergarten, and started first grade.
The family had just celebrated Jackson’s third year tumor-free when something showed up on his scans a few months ago.
“Our family is kind of in a standstill right now,” Smith said. Jackson’s next scan is Oct. 11, but Smith is already preparing for the worst: that the tumor is growing again and that Jackson needs more chemo.
This time Jackon’s first grade teacher at Tri Elementary School, Dawn Beebe, is giving them a Hot Wheels distraction.
Beebe taught Jackson last year for kindergarten as well, and when she found out he collects Hot Wheels, she figured she could help. Last May, her class collected 501.
In September, which is childhood cancer awareness month, Beebe set a goal to collect 1,002 cars throughout the year. The entire school got involved, turning the drive into a competition. The grade with the most cars won a pizza party. Beebe collected 1,655 in September alone.
“They just blew my goal for the whole year out of the water,” she said. “The smile on his face was just priceless.”
She had all the cars piled on her classroom floor on the last Friday in September so Jackson could see how much they had collected. Enough to fill a four 25-gallon trash bags, and ensure many donation trips to Riley for Smith and Jackson.
The new goal is to reach 5,000 by the end of May.
“Lots of teachers go above and beyond. … But Dawn, Mrs. Beebe, you can tell that she is so affected by this,” Smith said. “She really has become a part of his family . it just amplifies that special feeling that he has a community behind him of support.”
Which is even more important to Smith now, considering what her family could be facing in the coming months.
“You never know how long he’s going to be around,” Beebe said. “But with his little time with me, I want it to be exceptional.”
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