The outpouring of support for 17-year-old Taylor Peterson has been, in a word, extraordinary.
People throughout Northwest Montana and high school students as far away as Frenchtown have raised more than $50,000 for Peterson, who is terminally ill with cancer. With a prognosis from her doctors at the Mayo Clinic of only a few weeks left to live, Peterson’s last wish was to take a trip to Hawaii with her friend and father.
Now it appears cancer has robbed her even of her last wish.
Taylor’s condition has deteriorated in recent days. She’s hospitalized at Kalispell Regional Medical Center and won’t be able to make the trip she’d dreamed of, lead fundraiser Maureen Windauer said Wednesday after getting an update from Taylor’s father, Chuck Peterson.
Windauer and her husband, Tien, owners of Tien’s Place Oriental Dining in Columbia Falls, held a benefit for Peterson on Sunday that rallied the community like few other events in the town’s history.
With an army of volunteers, the Windauers served 2,700 meals. An online auction closes on Friday and money is still coming in, she said.
“Taylor was here [at the benefit] for about four hours on Sunday. She was such a trooper,” Maureen Windauer said.
During the benefit, Columbia Falls firefighters lined up their fire trucks along U.S. 2 and held out rubber boots to collect cash. A party store donated a big tent and tables.
Now the Windauers and other volunteers are regrouping and working on other ways to support Taylor. As comments pile up on the Taylor Rae Peterson Wish Benefit Facebook page, it’s clear many, many people want to do whatever it takes to create some wonderful memories for her.
“I want people to know we still have a plan,” Windauer said.
One idea is to decorate a local home or hotel suite in tropical style and treat Taylor and her family to a Hawaiian luau.
It all depends, of course, on Taylor’s condition.
Volunteers who helped with the benefit on Sunday are willing and waiting to help fulfill a dream closer to home.
“All I have to do is give them the word,” Windauer said.
Some of the money raised will be used to defray medical costs for her cancer treatment, and it’s likely a scholarship fund will be established in her name at Columbia Falls High School, where she is a senior.
“Tien and I had talked about a scholarship fund,” Windauer said. “That would live on forever. Her plaque and picture would be on the wall.”
Windauer said Taylor’s father supported the idea of setting up such a fund.
Brian Crandell, a guidance counselor at Columbia Falls High School, said the students’ emotional responses to Taylor’s condition have been varied.
“They’re pretty different, depending how close they were to Taylor,” he said.
What has impressed many is the incredible way her story has touched people, Crandell said.
“There’s been an amazing outpouring from the community ... an amazing amount of stories of incredible warmth,” he said.
Students and sports teams from many area high schools, including those in Whitefish, Kalispell, Libby, Frenchtown and others, have raised substantial amounts of money for Taylor.
Eureka students are staging a “Hat Day” event on Friday to raise money, Windauer said. A similar day last week at Glacier High School raised $1,140.
Dozens of people turned out Wednesday night for a prayer vigil for Taylor at the hospital.
Taylor was diagnosed with spindle cell carcinoma, or jaw bone cancer, about a year and a half ago.
It started as a small growth above one of her teeth and spread to other parts of her body, in spite of an operation to remove a portion of her jaw and three upper teeth, and then eight months of extensive radiation and chemotherapy at the Seattle Children’s Hospital.
When she finally returned to Columbia Falls for her senior year, she was weak and cancer-free, but only for a short time.
She struggled to keep up during volleyball practice and was able to play for a short time during the team’s Senior Night game against Polson. During a ceremony honoring the seniors in early October, Taylor, still bald-headed from her treatment, got a rousing round of applause.
An announcer read her words of advice: “No matter how hard life gets, always stay positive and keep focused on the bright side and push through. Never give up.”
Not long after that, she was headed to the Mayo Clinic. Her cancer worsened, creating tumors in her lungs, her jaw and along her spine. Doctors now are managing her pain at the Kalispell hospital.
Her story has drawn comments on Facebook from many who’ve never met her but are inspired by her courage.
One woman posted a note of encouragement to Taylor, saying, “I just want to tell you that you are a beautiful and strong young woman. Life is so very precious and short ... I don’t know what God has in store for you, but what I do know is you are very special and you do have a purpose ... I believe in wondrous things that happen every day. You, Taylor, are a miracle.”
The online auction for Taylor closes Friday, and can be accessed at www.32auctions.com/taylorraepeterson. Anyone wishing to donate may send a check, made out to the Taylor Peterson Cancer Fund, to Tien’s Place, 329 Ninth St., Columbia Falls, MT 59912.