BUNKER HILL — A surprise act of kindness 15 years ago left a lasting impression on Ashley Vopat and her family. And now, nearly two decades later, the family jumped at the chance to pay it forward.
The Russell County family and Russell County Fire District No. 5 in Bunker Hill have organized a fundraiser to benefit former Russell High School Principal Larry Bernard. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his retirement last spring.
“When Larry got hit with cancer, I was like we have to do something,” Vopat said. “We’ve been there. We know what it’s like.”
Fifteen years ago, Vopat was a senior at Russell High School and gave birth to her son, J.T., nearly three months early. Her boyfriend — now her husband — was overseas for military deployment, and she and her family struggled to keep Vopat in school while making frequent trips to be with the newborn in Wichita.
It was a difficult time, but it was made a little easier when Bernard surprised her father, Alan Kuntzsch, who was a teacher, with an envelope of money he had raised to help offset the costs of frequent travels.
It was more than just the money — the community support meant a great deal to Vopat and her family in their time of need, she said.
“We’re just returning the favor from 15 years ago,” Vopat said. “He didn’t ask. We didn’t know anything was coming. He just did it himself.”
Her son made a full recovery, and the teenager is now playing football in the Russell school district.
Now the family — many of whom are volunteer firefighters in Bunker Hill — was able to surprise Bernard with extra support to offset his travel expenses. Bernard and his family also are making frequent trips between Russell and Wichita for treatment.
Plastic bracelets with the message “Bernard Strong” are available for $1 each. Before the first shipment even arrived, the fire department had sold 500 bracelets.
They expect to sell out and order another batch, as bracelets and glow sticks will be sold at the Sept. 16 Bunker Hill Mud Run and also at a benefit run/walk planned Oct. 7 in conjunction with Russell’s Bricks Broncs & BBQ event.
Bracelets also can be ordered by contacting firefighters on their “Russell County Fire District #5” Facebook page, which is checked frequently.
The rural fire company typically does an annual fundraiser to benefit its own operations, but has decided to instead raise funds for the Bernard family this year.
“He was someone you could go to if you needed anything — advice, anything,” Vopat said. “His door was always open.”
The community often is quick to help each other, and Vopat described local support as “overwhelming.”
Residents even used sidewalk chalk to fill the Bernard family’s driveway with encouraging messages after their first trip for cancer treatments. A Russell High School class also is selling T-shirts to assist in fundraising efforts.
“It feels great,” she said. “You get the help you need, and you get to help pay it back later. I just didn’t think it would take 15 years to pay it back.”