COPPERAS COVE, Texas -- Proudly wearing yellow T-shirts and sporting yellow wristbands emblazoned with the phrase, #ConnorStrong, the city has rallied behind a 5-year-old boy battling cancer for the third time. Although the boy's family is new to Fort Hood and Central Texas, the support shown in their honor has been uplifting and life-changing.
Like many young boys, Connor Hedge loves dinosaurs, robots, computer games, Nerf guns and the color yellow. The difference though, is he was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, an aggressive pediatric cancer, nearly three years ago. As the member of a military family, Connor has already moved cross-country more than most boys his age.
The family moved to Fort Hood, Texas from Fort Lee, Va., in July. Connor's father, Maj. Robert Hedge, is a logistics officer with the 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, and recently returned from a deployment to Saudi Arabia.
Soon after Connor's arrival to his new school at House Creek Elementary in Copperas Cove, in which nearly 50 percent of the students are military children, his family witnessed firsthand an outpouring of support garnered in his name. The school principal, Larea Gamble, said the faculty, staff and students quickly offered their assistance in any way possible.
"Knowing the challenges the family was facing, we wanted to do what we could to ease the stresses of being new to the school, neighborhood, and community," Gamble said. "It also became our goal to embrace Connor and his family, and tangibly show our support as they were now members of our school family."
Already in this school year's first four months, House Creek Elementary has fostered many ideas to honor Connor's fight against childhood cancer. When his family traveled to Disney World in August, Connor was given an assortment of travel gifts by the student body to occupy his time, Gamble said. A month later, the school's fourth-graders performed a dance routine in his honor. Large yellow ribbons are draped around the columns in front of the school, and Gamble said they serve to remind Connor "he was missed (during his cancer treatments) and the school is thinking of him."
House Creek Elementary School is also conducting a "Coins for Connor" fundraising drive to raise money for the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation. Those who donate will be provided with one yellow paper star for every dollar donated, and will have notes of encouragement addressed to Connor written on each one. The school plans on lining the hallways with the yellow stars.
Connor first exhibited signs of illness over three years ago, when he developed a bump on his left temple, his father said. Shortly after that, he developed "raccoon eyes," or a dark bruising of the eyes. The boy's pediatrician referred him to the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, where he was later diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Connor would undergo a year of cancer treatment, and was later found to have no evidence of the disease.
In the spring of 2014, during a regular check-up, Connor's family was told another mass was found in the boy's head. The cancerous mass was soon removed with little permanent damage to Connor, but forced him to receive follow-up radiation therapy at hospitals in Virginia and New York City. Sadly, after the family arrived to Fort Hood in July, Connor again showed troubling signs suggesting neuroblastoma for a third time.
Connor's mother, Kristen, said he has undergone several chemotherapy and radiation treatments, three major surgeries, a craniotomy to remove brain tumors, and many antibody treatments. He will travel to Fort Worth later this month for additional treatments.
Both parents, however, said the school's expression of support has carried them through the family's hard times, especially given how new they are to the area.
"Being new to the area and not really knowing anyone, we are amazed at the level of support from Connor's school and Copperas Cove," Maj. Hedge said. He said Connor is the "strongest person I have ever met."
The community of Copperas Cove also united behind Connor during a recent high school football game in Copperas Cove. The athletics staff at Copperas Cove High School dedicated the school's varsity football game on Oct. 29 to Connor. The football team presented Connor with a Copperas Cove football jersey, sporting a No. 9, his favorite number, and many fans wear wearing yellow, Connor's favorite color. Connor was also escorted to the 50-yard line to conduct the pre-game coin toss with each of the teams' captains.
The opposing team and fans from Killeen's Shoemaker High School also donned yellow during the game, and were visibly excited to show their support to Connor as well. Unbeknownst to Connor's family, football players from Baylor University had signed a gold Baylor football helmet and jersey, which were then presented by a former player during the Oct. 29 game.
Maj. Hedge said his family was "completely awestruck" at the unexpected generosity demonstrated by Copperas Cove High School and the surrounding communities, and are now fans of Baylor University, the No. 2-ranked collegiate football team in the nation.
"So many people we don't know were supporting Connor and awareness for neuroblastoma and pediatric cancer," Hedge said. "It was one of the best times that Connor has had for a long time."
Gamble said her school was touched by Connor's enduring fight against cancer after three rounds. Doing everything they could to support him and his family has become a priority for the school's faculty, staff and students.
"Connor, and his story, have captured our hearts from our first meeting. It especially touched our staff to think of the family facing the challenges of the disease along with being new to the school and community," Gamble said. "It inspired everyone at House Creek to find ways to make them feel at home, feel supported, and know that they are not alone."
Maj. Hedge said that his son was initially given just weeks to live earlier this year, but Connor's condition has improved greatly, leaving some doctors scratching their heads on why he's doing so well. Offering advice to other parents of childhood cancer patients, the family said, "Stay strong, don't lose hope, and never ever give up."
Connor's parents and friends have established a Facebook page -- "Connorstrong -- Knocking out Neuroblastoma," which can be accessed at http://www.facebook.com/Connorstrongbeatingneuroblastoma, and also encouraged other supporters to donate to the Children's Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation.