Every day about noon, volunteers sit inside a northwest Missouri home and start sifting through mail for a baby boy they have never met.
Sometimes there are long letters, touching words from strangers who share tales of their own children. Notes offering prayers for the rural Tarkio boy and his family. Envelopes containing checks and cash donations, maybe just a few crumpled dollar bills.
All for Landon Shaw, a boy diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at an age when babies are smiling for photos and learning to hold up their heads and eat solid food.
“It’s hard and wonderful at the same time,” said Cathy Carter, who helps sort the piles of mail. “It kind of breaks me up every day to read these stories.”
For a little more than a month, people have been praying, pledging and plunging into cold waters for Landon. Little girls states away who know only Landon’s name wear T-shirts — “Keep Calm and Pledge On” — in his honor. Others record their jumps into frigid lakes, ponds or pools and rattle off on camera the names of people they challenge to do the same.
Those close to the baby and his family have found themselves not only praying for him and his recovery but also for the countless others who continue to take the plunge in his name. And they’re praying for Cole Nilson.
When the 31-year-old Iowa man plunged for Landon, diving headfirst into a farm pond, he struck the bottom. Now he is partially paralyzed. His injury prompted safety warnings and served as a stark reminder that even well-intentioned acts for the best of causes can turn tragic. Nilson has encouraged people to keep plunging for Landon, a boy he first learned about in early March when he and his brother went to Tarkio to hunt snow geese. At a convenience store, they saw a donation bucket for the baby boy and read about his cancer.
For Landon, so much support has poured in that fundraising organizers needed Carter and Margo Ellis to volunteer each day, six days a week, just to sort it. As of Friday, more than $233,000 had come in for Landon’s medical bills and expenses. People from every state have plunged, as well as 28 countries.
“Switzerland was really hitting it in the last couple of days,” said Lydia Hurst, an organizer for the Plunge for Landon fundraiser. “They were speaking their language (on the videos) and we couldn’t understand them. It’s just unbelievable to think no matter the language and the miles, people are still doing it for our 6-month-old little Landon.”
In late February, Landon’s parents, Alyssa and Brandon Shaw, discovered the boy was sick. They had taken him to Children’s Mercy Hospital after he kept throwing up and losing weight.
They eventually learned he was battling cancer that first hit a kidney and now is in his brain. He has undergone several surgeries and endured long hospital stays.
A fundraising effort for his family — which is on Medicaid — started with bake sales and bucket donations. Then after a Tarkio man took up a friend’s challenge to do a popular “polar plunge” in frigid waters, the idea for the Plunge for Landon came about.
“I don’t think anybody expected it to get this big,” said Joshua Wright, who also started a Facebook page for Landon. “It’s just done a lot, not just for our community but for communities across the world. It’s neat to see what he’s done for everybody.”
Shortly after the plunge campaign began, Alyssa Shaw said she would watch videos on Facebook and laugh. Landon would sometimes laugh with her.
Now she and her friends find themselves turning to that social media page to update people on Landon’s health and share thoughts in what’s become a public forum to cheer her son in his fight against the stage-four cancer. Last week she posted that she was watching Landon as he slept:
“I can never get enough of him :) Please God help my baby.”
As more people have signed on to help Landon, authorities and elected officials across the country have jumped in, too. A member of Congress jumped into a lake. So did a county commissioner. Firefighters and police officers took the plunge.
But they’ve also warned about safety. Especially after what happened near Oskaloosa, Iowa, one day last month.
Nilson, a park ranger for a county conservation agency, and his older brother, Ross, had thought about Landon since learning about his plight in early March. The father of a toddler boy, Nilson is known for helping others, especially kids. After a friend urged him to do the plunge, Nilson headed out to his brother’s pond that April day. Friends say he took the challenge with his typical 100 percent.
“Before he dove in, he said something like, ‘I’m just doing this because kids bring the world together,’ ” said Jessica Taylor, who lives near Oskaloosa. She was recording the plunge on her cellphone.
He and his brother, other family members and friends had gone diving into that pond dozens of times before.
“We all had done it so many times,” said Ross Nilson. “For the life of me, I don’t know what went wrong this time.”
Nilson knew the water was a little low that day, his brother said. But the spot where he dove must have been more shallow than he expected, and his head hit the bottom.
After he dove, friends saw him paddling in the water. They know Nilson to be a jokester and thought he was just being silly. Until he stayed in the water too long. When a friend got to him, Nilson was heard saying, “I thought I was going to die.” Taylor said he soon added, “I can’t move my legs. I think I broke my neck.”
As news hit that someone taking the challenge in Iowa was partially paralyzed after diving into a pond, those who know the Shaw family sent support and began to pray. “I was devastated,” Carter said. “To hear that something like that happened to a man doing a good thing, I was brokenhearted.”
Added Hurst: “Our prayers are extended. Our community has tried to support him.”
Nilson is now in Nebraska for rehabilitation. Doctors say his C6 vertebra was fractured.
He has movement in his arms, but his fingers struggle to grip. On two occasions he has been able to move his toes slightly on his left foot. His brother said Cole’s spirts are high. “He’s excited for every day to go to rehab to see what else he can do,” Ross Nilson said.
As for walking again, doctors say they take things day by day.
Friends and family in Iowa have started raising money for Nilson and his family. And as he regains his health, Nilson still thinks about the boy he took the plunge for last month.
“He actually said, ‘I don’t want the fact that this happened to me to take away from Landon getting help,’ ” Taylor said. “He still wanted people to do this for Landon.”
The money coming in for the rural Tarkio boy has alleviated some of the stress for the family, friends say. Landon has three older siblings and the family continues to face hefty expenses.
Last week, Landon was back at Children’s Mercy with a fever. But an MRI midweek gave his family good news. “No new tumors or tumor growth,” read a Facebook update from his parents. “CAT Scan was clear! Going home this afternoon!”
Organizers plan to display some of the notes and letters for Landon at the Tarkio Resource Center, 405 S. 11th St., so the community can see how people around the world have reached out. The display will include handstitched quilts with Landon’s name and a beach ball signed by plungers in Iowa.
“We want to show the community what they started,” Hurst said.
Many letters will tug at you, she said. The ones from moms whose children have also battled cancer. And especially the ones from children. “Dear Landon,” a note from a 6-year-old read. “I hope you get better and I hope your parents take you to the zoo.”
Another said: “Do you like dogs? I like dogs. I hope you get a dog.”
How to help
Donations and cards for Landon Shaw can be sent to The Flower Mill, 606 Main St., Tarkio, MO 64491.
To send support or donations for Cole Nilson, email his brother Ross Nilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.