After the cancer surgeries and treatments, Maddie Barber, 17, had some partial paralysis on her right side.
It prevented Maddie, who lives near San Antonio, from playing favorite school sports like volleyball. So her father encouraged her to join Future Farmers of America and raise pigs with her brother on the family’s nine-acre farm.
“She’s found that raising and showing animals is something she can do, and she enjoys it,” said her father, Travis Barber.
The family has had an overwhelming sense of gratitude since 2018, when Maddie was declared free from the brain cancer, medulloblastoma, that had consumed their lives since she was diagnosed at age 12.
This month, Maddie figured out a way she could say thank you to doctors and nurses at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who not only treated her cancer, but were also supportive of the entire family.
“They removed my tumor and saved my life,” said Maddie, a high school junior who lives in Boerne, Tex. “I wanted to give back in some way to help other kids struggling with cancer to have the same chance.”
So on Jan. 8, she went to the Kendall County Junior Livestock Show, where young people show their animals and the audience offers donations as part of a fundraiser for Future Farmers of America members. The young people often use the money, which is given at the show in the style of an auction, for a college fund or to buy more livestock.
As she stood on the grandstand, dozens of people in her community raised their hands to pitch in what they could toward her cause. One rancher offered $500. Another person quickly topped that with $1,000.
Up the number went until Maddie’s pair of 6-month-old swine had brought in $30,500.
“I was really in shock that it went so high,” said Maddie, noting that most kids go home with $2,000 to $4,000. When she looked out into the audience, she said, she saw that her mother was also stunned and crying.
“There was a sea of people holding up their bidding numbers,” said her mom, Tally Barber, 45, a tutor for Boerne Independent School District.
“I was so proud of Maddie and equally proud of our community to give so much,” she said. “They’re incredible people.”
“Everyone stepped up, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” added Cheyanne Waltman, who is Maddie’s agricultural science teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser at Boerne-Champion High School.
“Whether she ended up with $1,000 or $30,000, she was going to donate it all,” Waltman said.
The junior livestock show in Boerne doesn’t operate like a traditional auction, with the highest bidder taking home an item they won, Tally Barber said.
“For the kids, it’s like a fundraiser — one person will make an initial bid, then other people will raise their hands and add on money,” she said. “When it’s over, the kids can then go on to other shows or have their animals sold and hauled out to larger pig farms.”
Maddie had another goal in mind ever since she came home cancer-free and started raising pigs.
“It was scary, and the treatments weren’t easy,” she said about her cancer. “But I was so thankful to be alive and know that I had a second chance.”
She was 12 when her parents took her to a doctor for some tests after she suddenly had massive headaches and started vomiting during a family vacation in the Bahamas.
An MRI revealed that Maddie had a tumor the size of an avocado pit growing into her brain stem, her mom said.
Surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could, but there was still some remaining, Tally Barber said.
“To get the rest of the tumor, we decided to take Maddie to St. Jude, where they had successfully treated cases like hers,” she said. “We were hopeful, but also beyond terrified.”
Following a successful six-hour surgery at St. Jude in Memphis in July 2017, hospital staffers helped put the family at ease, Barber said, adding that her daughter required eight months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“They set us up with free housing so that I could stay there with Maddie and her dad and brother could come out to visit intermittently,” she said.
When Maddie returned to Boerne cancer-free in March 2018, the town had been decorated in bright blue ribbons — her favorite color.
“Everyone had them wrapped around their trees to show their support,” she said. “It made me know that I wasn’t alone.”
For the past three years, she’s been raising pigs with her 15-year-old brother, Ryan, who pitches in to help Maddie with chores that she can’t do on her own, her father noted.
“Cancer affects the whole family, and Ryan has really stepped up,” said Travis Barber, who works as a project manager for a medical device company. “We know that this could be the first step for Maddie finding a platform that is personal to her where she can give back and help others for the rest of her life.”
After the livestock show, Maddie sold her swine for about $100 each to a hog farm in California, where they will eventually be sold to meat processors. Maddie said she doesn’t name her animals because it would be harder to part with them.
She said she feels proud of her community and the money they contributed and said she would like to continue raising livestock.
“I hope to do whatever I can to help other kids to heal and have a good life,” she said. “I feel really fortunate. I want to help somebody else to have that same feeling.”