- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2020

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Cole Kelley grinned widely and waved Saturday (Feb. 15) as his head kept swiveling from one direction to the other to take in the amazing view surrounding him.

Hundreds of family members, friends, Mars Hill School classmates and other members of the community lined both sides of the school’s parking lot to welcome the 8-year-old home.

The Mars Hill student and his parents, John and Caroline Kelley, had been away from home for 15 months while he has battled a rare disease.

That included a 460-day stay at the National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, Maryland, which is one of the few facilities with experience treating the disease dada2, which is a deficiency of the adenosine deaminase 2 (ADA2) enzyme.

According to dada2.org, the disease causes “recurrent strokes, severe systemic inflammation, immune deficiency, and damage to many of the body’s tissues and organs.”

The community organized the homecoming parade, which included an escort from Florence’s police and fire departments, as well as people dressed in superhero outfits.

Along with Cole’s classmates, Mars Hill High School cheerleaders joined the crowd, as did the school’s football players, who showed up in their jerseys. The long reception line spanned the length of the parking lot coming off Cox Creek Parkway.

The procession made two laps through the parking lot amid loud cheers and flowing tears from the congregation before the family, clearly emotional from the outpouring, drove home.

“It’s been amazing,” Cole’s cousin, Sara Beth Searcy, said while wearing a “Best Day Ever” shirt she bought during a Disney World trip Cole and the family took before his long hospital stay.

“This whole community has supported us from the very beginning,” she said. “We could not have gotten through this without this entire community wrapping their arms around us.”

Cole classmate Rogan Willingham held a sign that read “God answered our prayers.”

“He’s prayed, I don’t know how many times a day, for Cole,” his mother, Ginger Willingham, said.

“I’m glad he’s back,” Rogan said, adding he looks forward to being able to “play with him and all kinds of stuff.”

“I was praying for him a lot,” he said.

There were numerous other signs with messages, such as “Sweet Home, Alabama,” “Super Cole” and “Welcome home, Buddy.”

Emily Stutts, a friend of the family who helped organized the welcome, and fellow member of Jackson Heights Church of Christ, said Cole has been sick since he was 2 months old.

He had a bone transplant at the National Institutes.

“He lived off of having blood transfusions because his body did not make red blood cells,” Stutts said. “After a while that became risky because his body can’t filter out all the iron. So a bone marrow transplant was the only answer.”

He was enrolled in the “Be the Match” bone marrow registry and was a match with a young man from Australia, who had volunteered to join the registry.

“He was able to give the bone marrow and they flew it over to Maryland and did the transplant,” Stutts said. “It didn’t take initially, and Cole has had three stem-cell transplants, all from the one donation from the Australian man.

“The fact that he’s coming home is a miracle, because he had some very, very scary times that they didn’t think he would survive. He had zero immune until Christmas day. That day his immune response occurred.”

She said John and Caroline often talk about the amazing support they have been receiving back home. A community spaghetti supper, T-shirt sales and a Christmas fundraising event are among methods supporters have used to provide financial assistance for the parents, who have not been able to work during their son’s hospitalization.

“The people at the hospital there can’t believe the support that they’ve been given from this community,” Stutts said. “They told them they see people from all over the world, but they’ve never seen the outpouring of love like they saw for the Kelleys.

“They deserve it. They’re such good people.”

Florence company High Cotton Homes provided assistance in a major way, Stutts said.

“They had to have all new heating and air units and vents put in and a water purification system, all new flooring and all new duct work because of his immune system,” she said. “High Cotton took that on, got donations and completely remodeled his room and made it so Cole would have his own bathroom to help with germ prevention.”

Cole still is susceptible to sickness and will continue to have medical appointments, Stutts said.

“His liver was damaged from the transplant so he’s going to go to Vanderbilt for them to check his liver,” she said. “There’s still things that need to be addressed, but as far as his bone marrow, that is doing OK.”

Stutts said Cole’s disease has not kept him down.

“He is full of life,” she said. “He’s a happy kid. Even though he’s been sick, if you had seen him, you would have never know it. He’s made a huge impact on the people at the National Institutes for Health because no child’s been there that long. That became his family. They had a going-away party at one of the doctor’s homes.”

The emotions of Saturday’s homecoming were obvious among the crowd, many of whom hugged one another and cried.

“The one thing I kept hearing from everybody is it was more emotional than they through it would be,” said Ronnie Pannell, family minister at Jackson Heights. “It’s been a big show of love. Mars Hill loves Cole Kelley, there’s no doubt about that.”

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