Nicholasville school surprises student with wheelchair van

aroberts@herald-leader.comMay 29, 2013 

— The scene might have been from the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, but it was a conspicuous yellow bus that concealed the surprise.

On Wednesday, two days before the end of the school year, classmates of 7-year-old Braden Petrucci filled the back parking lot of Warner Elementary school. Teachers attempted to contain the excited students, as small hands held homemade signs saying "Go Braden" and "We love you Braden."

When the bus rolled away, the result of months of fundraising — a wheelchair van — appeared for Braden, his mother, Tenia Johnson, 28, and younger brother Darius, 3.

Braden has faced health struggles since his premature birth in 2006. He is in a wheelchair because of spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, but he is outgrowing it. In April, Braden underwent a bilateral hip replacement at Shriners Hospital for Children.

Before receiving the van, Johnson had to lift Braden into her Toyota Corolla, then take the wheels off his chair to fit it in her car.

The van was the result of a Christmas wish by Braden last year. After hearing about the wish, the students, teachers and staff at his school began raising money. They set a target of $30,000.

"We have not done anything this large before, but to be a part of something that raises this much was a great experience," principal Val Gallutia said. "And the kids learned some good lessons just thinking about others."

The van wasn't a complete surprise to Johnson, who had been in contact with school officials during the fundraising process. Johnson worked with Superior Van & Mobility in Lexington to find a van that would be best for her and her sons.

"It's interesting because I saw the van on the Internet and did not get to see it in person until a few weeks ago at the car show they did," Johnson said. "And when I saw it, I broke down crying."

In addition to the van, the students created a book, donated by Cloud Printing, for Braden and his family. It featured pieces written and illustrated by the students about what they learned from the fundraising project.

Efforts included in-school fundraisers, a Facebook page and donations from businesses. The students hit their target and kept going, raising about $45,000. The extra money is to be used for insurance and other expenses.

"As we started raising money, we just started changing to a better van, and now they have a top-of-the-line van," said Cassy Churchill of Superior Van & Mobility.

"This here is going to change our lives immensely," Johnson said.

Anyssa Roberts: (859) 231-1409. Twitter: @LexGoKy.

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