Andrew Ellis may be bound in a lime-green cast and a bulky leg brace, but the 8-year-old tornado survivor hated sitting still at his homecoming party Saturday in Rossville. There were squirt guns to shoot, friends to tease and cake to eat.
Andrew hasn’t been home since April 27, the day he lost his half-brother, cousin, grandmother and great-grandmother to the tornado in Apison.
He was injured terribly — a broken femur and an elbow laceration that destroyed muscle and exposed bone, and cuts all over his body. He has been undergoing rehabilitation at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for about a month.
“I’m tired of being cooped up there,” said Andrew, “I miss my friends and doing stuff with them. I’m ready to just be back full time.”
His mother, Wendy, said she wanted the party to surround him with the love and support he’s been missing for the last month.
“I’ve seen the outpouring from this community, and he hasn’t gotten to see it as much with all his treatment,” she said.
He got to see it Saturday evening when Bill Lehmkuhl showed up.
Lehmkuhl, an agency owner of Farmers Insurance Group on Lee Highway, headed up a six-hour fundraiser at the business to collect money for Andrew’s medical bills.
“This boy’s story got me right here,” he said patting the area over his heart. “I just knew we had to do something for him.”
Lemkuhl said more than 75 people turned out for the fundraiser and donated close to $500. Someone even donated a weekend at a condo in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Ellis broke down in tears as Lemkuhl unfolded a large poster signed by dozens of well-wishers and an envelope full of donations.
She said it’s a mounting struggle to find the money to pay for all of Andrew’s treatment. Part of Andrew’s Erlanger stay cost $145,000, and his rehabilitation at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta costs $1,000 each week.
Lemkuhl plans to keep raising money for the family, accepting donations for them over the next month.
“Andrew is my hero,” he said. “He’s been so strong, and we’re just going to keep doing what we can.”
For the next several weeks Andrew will undergo rehabilitation in Atlanta Monday through Friday and come home on weekends.
Despite the laughs, hugs and jokes traded by the family and friends at the party, Ellis said Andrew’s homecoming is bittersweet. It makes the death of her older son, Adam Carroll, even more real.
“We’re so happy to have Andrew home, but what he’s coming home to — it’s an emptiness. It was just him and Adam and me here. I wanted today to be happy and uplifting when Andrew came home so he wouldn’t have to feel the emptiness as much.”
Andrew frequently fastens on a red football helmet signed and given to him by the Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe football team. Ellis says it serves as a thinking cap and a shield — “something he puts on when he just kind of needs a break, needs a barrier from everything.”
She said the family still has a long way to go. Once Andrew’s body is healed, Ellis said they will start grief counseling together.
“He wanted to go up to where the trailer was when he came home, but he changed his mind midroute,” said Ellis. “He just wasn’t ready yet.”
Some of those who first treated Andrew that night were at the gathering.
“I think we’re all surprised about how well he’s doing,” said Spence Person, a firefighter EMT with Collegedale’s Tri-Community Fire Department.
“Given the situation he came out of, the rubble of the trailer — it’s pretty amazing to see.”