The final scene in the classic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” may make for a tear-shedding ending, but it also bears itself out in real life.
When the angel Clarence wrote, “No man is a failure who has friends,” it emphasized the notion that when one is in trouble or has encountered difficulties in life, their true friends will shine through to provide help.
This weekend, those words became reality for Soldotna fire technician Tim Weekley and his family at the 9/11 Tribute Rodeo, held three consecutive days at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds.
Weekley was injured on the job in January when he slipped off the roof of a residential structure that was on fire. While working with his fire team to put out the blaze, Weekley fell two stories and broke bones in his shoulder, necessitating significant recovery time and requiring extensive surgery that included the insertion of metal plates.
Less than three months later, Weekley’s three-year-old son John suffered the first of two focal seizures, requiring an immediate trip to Central Peninsula Hospital and later extended time at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
The family setbacks meant the hospital bills piled up quickly, and insurance only went so far.
That’s where the “Ride for John” fundraiser and charity donation drive comes in. The community effort was a big part of this weekend’s rodeo, which held special meaning in many ways.
“It’s very humbling,” Weekley said in a phone interview from Houston. “We’re always wanting to give back, but being on the other side of it, it’s humbling knowing our community is coming out to support John, knowing that he has an opportunity to impact people.
“It definitely brings tears to our eyes knowing they’re going to ride for John.”
The Soldotna Equestrian Association teamed up with Alaska’s Healing Hearts to put on the 9/11 Tribute Rodeo, which is in its second year. The event debuted last summer as a way to honor the local and national heroes of law enforcement, fire fighters, first responders and military.
The man leading the “Ride for John” efforts is longtime Soldotna rider Bradyn Holly, a fellow firefighting tech that befriended Weekley at firefighting/paramedic school. Holly currently lives in Anchorage.
“Growing up in Soldotna, we’re one big community,” Holly said. “They are a great family, and without Tim, I’m not sure I would’ve got through paramedic school.”
The donation drive for the Weekley family included a fill-the-boot drive and the sale of T-shirts with a logo emblazoned with the words, “Courage, strength, blessed, faith, hope,” on the back, which Holly said have sold over 400.
Holly said in all, he estimates over $700 has been donated, not including whatever comes out in the fill-the-boot drive.
“I just wanted to help out,” he said. “We’re doing this to raise awareness for John and to help them out.”
Holly, 21, has been doing rodeo events since age 10, and for many years enjoyed barrel racing with his own horse. Holly now only partakes in the ribbon-roping events, but has since become a coach along with fiancee Shyanne Schebler in the Alaska Youth Equestrian Club, an Anchorage-based group that teaches youth riders the essentials of horsemanship and the core values of hard work and integrity.
As a volunteer at Central Emergency Services, Holly got to know Weekley, a lifetime peninsula resident.
Weekley is a born and raised Alaskan who has roots in Sterling as a former pastor at the town’s Baptist church, where he spent over eight years. Weekley became the CES chaplain 6 1/2 years ago. Weekley now lives in Soldotna with his wife Julie, seven-year-old daughter Rebecca Jo and son John.
It was Rebecca Jo that fostered a love for horses and all animals, and Weekley said his daughter’s passion for horses drew them to the Soldotna Rodeo, which puts on numerous events throughout each summer.
“Last year we went to quite a few rodeos and supported it,” Weekley said.
No one in the Weekley family rides in the rodeos, but they enjoyed watching Tim’s work buddy, who is now a big part of the family’s success in making it through what has been a difficult time.
“That’s what is more humbling for us,” Weekley said. “That the community supports us.”
Weekley’s accident in late January was already enough to set the family back, but John’s seizures injected an entirely new dimension to the dilemma.
It was April 14. While visiting a Soldotna friend, Weekley said he recalls his son playing outside.
“He was there at the door, he came in and collapsed,” Weekley said.
Immediately, Weekley rushed to his son’s aid. Because it was a focal seizure, John was alert and aware of the situation as it progressed.
A focal seizure affects just a portion of the brain, typically one hemisphere or one lobe. The symptoms are therefore limited to just one area of the body. In this case, John’s left leg was shaking uncontrollably.
“We tried to get him to get up, he was unable to put any weight on his left leg,” Weekley described. “He was pretty much dragging his leg, unable to move for 20 minutes.”
Weekley said initially, the family had no clue as to what was happening, and they brought him into CPH to gain a diagnosis.
Once it was determined what John had experienced, the family made the decision to obtain expert help. With only one pediatric neurologist in Alaska, Tim said they looked elsewhere for knowledge.
Having grown up in Houston, Julie Weekley had connections to the Texas Children’s Hospital there, considered one of the top pediatric hospitals in the country.
The family flew out April 27, almost two weeks after John’s initial episode.
“He was getting worse,” Weekley said. “On the flight down, he was going through absence seizures every 20 to 30 minutes.”
An absence seizure is a lesser form of seizure that typically involves sudden but brief lapses in attention.
Weekley said since John was admitted to the Texas hospital, he has undergone four brain surgeries in about a three-month span, and the medical professionals are currently testing to see whether John has a rare autoimmune disease known as Rasmussen’s Encephalitis, which is characterized by inflammation of the brain. The extremely rare disease affects only about 1 in 4.16 million kids annually.
Weekley said his young son has been doing well and is progressing with rehab that includes three-hour days, six days a week. Using a leg brace to help him learn to walk normally again is part of the process, Weekley said.
Weekley himself is still recovering from his shoulder injury, as he is currently assigned to only light duty on the job.
“It’s just something we’ve never experienced,” Weekley said. “God’s been good, he’s been providing for the people of our community, and one of the huge things we found and seen in Sterling and Soldotna is the community aspect of it. People have stepped up and helped out.”
With his good friend in his thoughts thousands of miles north in Soldotna, Holly wouldn’t have it any other way.