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Students dress up to support sick classmate

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Youngsters sported capes at Cuyuna Range Elementary School on Wednesday.

They came in the form of towels, pillow cases, bed sheets and old Halloween costumes. One fourth-grader’s hand-made cape summed it all up, reading: “Curtis is our hero.”

Curtis Lee Hiltbrunner, a first-grader at the school, was born with short bowel syndrome.

He had only about 12 inches of his small intestines compared to the 23 feet he should have. After a triple transplant of liver, intestine and partial pancreas at 9 months old, doctors told his parents he wouldn’t live to age 10.

At 7 years old today, medical professionals say one more surgery or transplant could cut that life span even shorter.

Local doctors told Curtis Lee’s parents, Curtis and Melissa Hiltbrunner and Alicia Collins, that the top-notch hospital, and the best bet at helping their son, is in Pittsburgh. The family plans to go there for a consultation.

Facing up to a $300,000 bill for the trip since his insurance won’t cover the out-of-state hospital, a recently laid off Curtis Hiltbrunner Sr. set up the trip anyway.

“I’ll pay $5 a month for the rest of my life if I have to,” he said.

Still, the worried father confided to the elementary school family collaborative worker, Teppi Bundy. Later that day, she called him back and told him of the school’s plan to help raise funds.

That news brought tears to the father’s eyes.

Monday, students wore caps. Tuesday, about 95 percent of the school wore green for Curtis Lee. (His favorite color and the official color of organ transplant awareness) And Wednesday, about 85 percent of the school population had a cape wrapped around their backs. (Curtis Lee loves super heroes)

Michelle Pejka, secretary at the school, estimates up to $1,600 will be raised by the end of the effort.

She said staff and students alike have a special connection with little Curtis Lee.

He hung out in the office while others ate lunch because of a feeding tube. He wants to be just like his classmates, never letting his sickness get in the way.

“He became one of our very good friends, so we decided to do something fun for him,” she said.

Just how much support the elementary student would get, though, no one expected.

The school flooded with participants during the week of dressing up.

“There’s a lot of support here for this little guy. We all want him to pull through,” Pejka said.

It’s a lesson for other students, as well, she added.

“We want (students) to realize that no matter what people look like and who they are, we stick up for them, we help them out,” she said. “Love your classmates. Appreciate people in your classroom. You never know when they will be gone.”

Community members, ones Curtis Hiltbrunner Sr. has never met, come up to him and voiced their thoughts and prayers.

“It’s the impact (Curtis Lee) has made on everyone around him, it’s huge,” he said. “People say he’s the reason they keep going. They say if he can handle such a hard situation, they can handle the smaller ones in their lives.”

Curtis Lee himself wore a red cape and Superman T-shirt Wednesday.

In December, he’ll travel to Disney World as part of the Make a Wish Foundation.

In the last year, the young boy has battled with multiple episodes of rejection, infection and viruses.

Bills piling high and money tight, Curtis Hiltbrunner Sr. says the school’s effort means a lot to the family. He’s not sure what they’ll learn at the Pittsburgh hospital, but he’s thankful for the support the community has shown.

“The fact that they’re doing this for my son is mind-blowing,” he said. “(Curtis Lee) is the strongest person I’ve ever met in my life. He takes all things going on with him in stride.”

Nothing can get Curtis Lee down. Not even his sickness.

JESSICA LARSEN may be reached at or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at