The Warrior family puts up a fight

Friday, February 22, 2019
Dozens of volunteers donning t-shirts with a message brought a fundraiser for veteran teacher BJ Stevicks together quickly after they learned about his cancer diagnosis in January. / Photos by Elijah Decious

On a cold, snowy Sunday this week, a teacher found warmth in the outpouring of support from his community. Alta-Aurelia Community School District put on a silent action and meal to help the 27-year industrial art teacher and coach BJ Stevicks get through his battle with pancreatic cancer.

Dozen of student, faculty and community volunteers ushered and fed hundreds who came through the doors, where the line to get food and personally talk to BJ ran from the counter all the way out the door, wrapping around dozens of items laid out on tables.

Their t-shirts read: “Standing with Stevicks; His fight is our fight.” “He’s always been there to help you out,” said High School Principal Tom Ryherd of Stevicks’ service.

Well-wishers from school administration to neighbors and friends came to encourage BJ in his fight against pancreatic cancer. Even with a face mask on, his smile radiated as he offered personal gratitude to everyone who came through the line.

“As an educator, we never really realize how many lives we touch,” he said. “This is a tribute to what he’s done for everybody over the years and didn’t even think twice about—he just did it.”

“He’s just a fun-loving guy, always with a smile or a joke to tell you,” said Shawna Hilsabeck, High School Secretary, of why BJ has been a joy to work with for so many years.

And on Sunday, BJ was the same character everyone has known for decades, enthusiastically sharing a personal smile, laugh or hug with every person who came through the line. Even through the face mask he wore, his smile radiated.

BJ will be taking the next month off from teaching for treatment in Omaha, playing it by ear. He will be retiring this year. “He’s had a big influence on a number of kid’s lives,” said Superintendent Lynn Evans. “Industrial art teachers and home economics teachers and art teachers—they reach a completely different audience than traditional teachers. He has a way with those kids that draws them to take those classes, and he has a heart for them.”

BJ also coached high school wrestling, middle school football, softball and girls basketball, touching lives both in the classroom and out of it.

“He just made learning fun,” said Elizabeth Peterson, an elementary art teacher in the district who had Stevicks as a social studies teacher in the late 90s. “He was one of the first teachers to have us doing video projects. I remember him just loving his job and always saying teaching was what he loved to do. He always had a smile.”

“Oh my gosh!” BJ first exclaimed when asked for his reaction to the huge, visible outpouring of people crowding into the Alta Elementary cafeteria and hallways. “It’s just overwhelming. My emotions are just high and low, high and low,” he said. “It is unbelievable.”

This fundraiser was the second with a similar showing for Mr. Stevicks. The last one at Pizza Ranch also packed the house with a line out the door. His wife, Sue, echoed that feeling. “We knew we had a great town here, but we just had no idea (how great) until something like this happened,” she said.

The veteran educator ran into a hiccup with treatment, his wife said. Previous treatment was on a three on, one off schedule, but that may be reevaluated. They remain optimistic as they face a particularly aggressive form of cancer, with possibilities for clinical trials and surgery to remove the mass from his body. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, with a 9 percent five-year survival rate, according to the Hirschberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

Together, they’ve learned that they have more friends than they realized, Sue said. “He’s touched a lot of lives in this town. A lot of past students came and reached out. It’s pretty amazing,” she said.

“I knew that this community comes together with these kinds of things, but I never, ever thought they’d do it for me,” BJ said. “There’s something stronger than I can express out there.”

Those who were not able to attend the fundraisers can donate to a fund set up at United Bank of Iowa at 1270 Lake Avenue in Storm Lake. Those wishing to donate should ask for the “BJ Stevicks benefit fund.”