Eighth-grade student Connor Schuelke doesn’t see himself as a hero. An A student at Christ the King School, South Bend, he has favorite teachers, but not a favorite subject. He likes to play video games and build with Legos. He also swims, plays the violin and the piano. He’s not allowed to play contact sports, but he was eager to get out on the playground with his friends recently, as soon as his doctors at Riley Hospital for Children let him return to school. He came back with a smile, and his classmates vied for the privilege of pushing his wheelchair when necessary.
That positive attitude is one reason principal Stephen Hoffman nominated Connor to be a 2019 Riley Champion. From 70 nominees, a committee then chose Connor and seven other Indiana young people ranging in age from 9 to 17, for recognition on the basis of their courage and philanthropy, and the inspiration they have provided to their communities.
Connor found out about the honor in August; so he was surprised at all the attention he received during a school assembly on Sept. 13, when the news was shared with his teachers and classmates.
In front of 465 students from pre-K to eighth grade, Riley Foundation representative Susan Miles unfurled a banner for the school to display. Connor can strike up a conversation with anyone, even with a stranger waiting in line with him, but representatives from local TV stations thrusting microphones in his face was a new experience. “How do you feel?” they inquired. He replied, “Nervous.”
In the coming months, Riley champions will have a chance to tell their stories to donors and parents, beginning at a “Be the Hope Now” luncheon in Indianapolis on Nov. 28. They’ll also be welcomed at an upcoming Indianapolis Colts game.
In the past, Christ the King School has raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The students, teachers and administrators also have collected over 3 million pop can tabs for Riley’s Ronald McDonald House, for families of hospitalized children.
Connor’s Riley story began in third grade, the same year he began attending Christ the King. In October he began experiencing pain in his left femur and vomiting, but doctors were mystified. Suspecting juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, they finally sent Connor to a specialist at Riley. In February 2014 she diagnosed Ewing sarcoma, a cancer that attacks bone and the soft tissue around it. By the time a biopsy confirmed that, it had metastasized to his lungs.
Treatment involved chemotherapy, which ruined his appetite and led to stomach infections. Radiation was also part of the regimen. A few months later he had a total hip replacement.
It’s a little ironic that Connor has been named a Riley ambassador, said his mother, Rachel Trinh, because his face fell every time they had to check into the hospital for a week of chemotherapy — with only a week off in between each round. Connor’s teachers were very understanding, providing work he could do at home to keep up with his class.
That same year, Connor was preparing for the sacraments of initiation. But because he was so sick, he was unable to be baptized, confirmed and receive first Communion at the Easter Vigil. Instead, his pastor, Father Neil Wack, CSC, came to his house on his birthday. “My faith certainly grew during that time,” said Connor. “It was very helpful.” Religion teacher Cindy Esch was especially supportive.
“He has such a good attitude,” Trinh testified. “I would have thrown in the towel. He had to miss so much of his childhood!” But Connor is thankful for what he has today and compassionate toward those who have less.
He loves to give back to others, welcoming opportunities to serve the homeless. He comes home excited from his time relating to the residents at Healthwin Specialized Care nursing home. He does whatever the other patients and residents want, from pushing a wheelchair to helping a blind resident play bingo.
Connor’s younger siblings, Isabella and Julian, are in first grade and kindergarten at Christ the King, so they joined him at the school assembly, as did his grandmother; his mother, a nurse; and his father, Jason Schuelke, a firefighter.
With the cooperation and sponsorship of Kroger, Riley has been honoring champions for 11 years. One of the first honorees overcame osteosarcoma and now works as a trauma nurse.
Connor would like to become a pilot. His medical limitations will prevent his serving in the military, but he could fly commercially. He already has become the youngest person his flying instructor has ever taught. Even though he doesn’t like math, he loves navigating by lining up the instruments in the cockpit.
It’s been 3 1/2 years since there’s been any evidence of Conner’s cancer. That’s too soon to say that he is “in remission,” however. He will need frequent medical checkups for the rest of his life. However, Trinh said, “I truly believe the power of prayer healed him.”
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