Pay It Forward - Lemonade Stand Inspires Life-Changing Gift

1/10/2023 10:00:00 AM


"What's so empowering about the Pay It Forward program is when you hear about a need, you can do something about it. You can do more than feel bad that another family is suffering – you can do something to make a difference in their lives.” – Tracy Frank, Bell Bank Employee

It was early September, and school had only been in session a couple of weeks. Nearly 100 people excitedly waited for the guests of honor to arrive.

“I don’t know why I’m nervous,” Bell Bank employee Tracy Frank told her co-workers as they hid in a nearby classroom.

“This could be life-changing,” suggested Jasmine Picard, another Bell employee.

As the minutes ticked by, the butterflies in Tracy’s stomach fluttered faster. She would soon meet Jenna Willert and her son, Brantlee – a 9-year-old with brain cancer who had inspired his school, community and complete strangers.

Bell Employee

Tracy Frank, Senior Multimedia Storyteller
Fargo, N.D.


Brantlee and Jenna Willert

The Need

When he was only six years old, Brantlee had headaches that were so severe he would vomit. His mom, Jenna Willert, took him to the hospital, where a CT scan revealed a mass on his brain.

“I was alone with him, and I was really confused,” Jenna says. “My son had a headache, and then I find out he has cancer.”

Two days later Brantlee went through a 12-hour surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. But because it’s located by his optic nerve, surgeons couldn’t remove it all.

“The tumor will never go away, so he will live with this for the rest of his life,” Jenna explains. “It could come back at any time, and then we would need to start doing chemo all over again.”

Now a third grader, Brantlee has gone through numerous brain procedures, he’s been on and off chemo, and he’s battled complex partial seizures due to the tumor. He has also become paralyzed on the right side of his body and now uses a wheelchair.

“He used to dance all the time,” Jenna notes. “Every morning we’d wake up before school and we’d watch YouTube videos so he could dance, dance, dance. And then the surgery happened and it was totally different. I think that was the hardest part, because he’s such an outgoing boy. But he is getting his personality back. He’s so friendly, and he just loves everyone, and everybody loves him.”

Brantlee is working on strengthening his body to be able to navigate his wheelchair. He also receives speech, occupational and physical therapies to support rehabilitation. Jenna hopes Brantlee will eventually regain control on the right side of his body, learn to walk again and be able to function independently.

“We’re just taking every day as we can,” Jenna says.

Throughout his journey, students, teachers and staff at Brantlee’s school – Northern Cass, near Hunter, N.D. – have held fundraisers to help his family. Some classmates even sold lemonade to help buy a vehicle that can better accommodate Brantlee’s wheelchair. Cory Steiner, Northern Cass School District superintendent, said that was a career-defining moment he’ll always remember.

“It was their first day out of school, so you would’ve thought no one would’ve shown up, but all day long they had traffic,” Cory comments. “Truck drivers would stop in the middle of the road and put their hazards on and come over, families that didn’t have kids in school would come over and just drop a $100 bill in there. It shows you the power of community is still alive and well.”

The Impact

When Brantlee’s second-grade teacher, Kelsey Smith, told her sister, Tracy Frank, that she was stopping by the lemonade stand, Tracy thought it was sweet that Kelsey would drive out of her way for her students. Then Kelsey told Tracy what the stand was for.

“My heart went out to this family,” Tracy recalls. “I also have cancer, so I understand how impossible this journey can seem.”

Tracy knew Bell’s Pay It Forward program could likely help raise the rest of the money Brantlee’s family needed, but she was shocked by the overwhelming support that poured in. Tracy emailed her co-workers in Cass County, and more than 60 people agreed to contribute Pay It Forward funds – some even made personal donations to the cause.

“People read about what Brantlee was going through and wanted to do whatever they could to help,” Tracy comments. “It was amazing to have people come together who didn't know Brantlee or his mom, but still wanted to help somebody in the community.”

Tracy worked with Cory to figure out when they could surprise Brantlee and his mom with the check. The day of the donation, Tracy and co-workers who had also contributed Pay It Forward funds – hid in a classroom while the entire third grade and Kelsey’s second-grade class gathered to wait for Brantlee and Jenna to arrive.

As soon as they did, the Bell crew came out, carrying a large check and a big bouquet of super-hero balloons.

“As I was driving to bring him to school, I was wondering how I was going to get groceries,” Jenna notes. “The feeling you get when you know so many people love and care about your child is so overwhelming. It just does something to your heart – especially when people who don’t know him go the extra mile to help.”

“I could see the gratitude on Jenna’s face, and it filled my heart to be able to give a gift like this to somebody without ever expecting anything in return,” Tracy explains. “It can feel so helpless to see people – especially children – suffering. But to be able to use the Pay It Forward program to help this family and give them hope, it’s empowering and fulfilling.”

“Bell Bank says you’re there for the community, but you actually put your actions behind your words,” Cory remarks. “It’s easy to say it, but Bells’ actions have always matched their words. This was a game-changing day for this family due to all the people at Bell Bank.”

Through the Pay It Forward program, Bell gives employees money each year to donate to people in need and causes they care about.

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