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A Story Of Courage: Jesse Schott doesn’t go down without fight against cancer

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By Stephen Thomas

 HILLVIEW - Bullitt County will forever have a hero to celebrate thanks to a young man who overcame obstacles and became an inspiration for others.

Jesse Schott, 17, a North Bullitt High School student who battled three separate bouts of brain cancer, passed away last Monday at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville.

He was widely known throughout the North Bullitt and Hillview communities, assisting with various civic functions and regularly attending the Bullitt County Relay for Life as a young survivor.

Jesse was a member of the North Bullitt JROTC program, recently promoted to 1st Sergeant., and was a member of Boy Scout Troop 007, recently completing his Eagle Scout project.

In January, he received the honorable title of Kentucky Guardsman courtesy of the Kentucky Army National Guard. He was named as an honorary firefighter and police officer by the National Eagle Scout Association Infinity Group. He also received the title of Honorary Mayor of Hillview.

Jesse was raised by his grandparents, Margie and Kyle Schott. He had faced cancer at a younger age, contributing to slight mental and physical issues. Regardless, he was able to attend school and participate in various programs.

His involvement with Troop 007 began when a nine-year-old Jesse met Scout Master Don Barbiea, who grew up the son of an Okolona firefighter. The two met on a Zoneton firetruck assisting with collections for the Crusade for Children.

“He wanted to be in Scouts,” Barbiea recalled. “I knew he was special in that first minute. I told him I’d need to speak with his grandma about it and he immediately got her on the phone, but she said not now. The next year I saw him again and he asked again, and we talked to his grandpa, but we still decided to wait.”

Eventually Kyle relented and brought Jesse to a meeting, leading to an initiation the following week.

“Joining the Scouts was the first time Jesse was out of his norm,” Barbiea said. “Kyle told me later that it really broke Jesse out of his shell.”

Barbiea’s son, Trevor, had become an Eagle Scout, so Jesse immediately looked toward that goal.

“Ever since then, he said, loud and proud, that he wanted to be an Eagle Scout,” said Barbiea. “I told him he had to go through the process like everyone else, and we made him.”

According to Barbiea, Jesse never registered as a disabled Scout until the day before his promotion.

“Jesse couldn’t swim,” he said. “He would sink like a rock. He had no buoyancy, but he kept trying. When he registered as disabled, the swimming was waived, but he earned everything else. I never let Jesse use his disability for his own pleasure. He did try to negotiate his way out of stuff, but we made him do everything.”

Barbiea said prior to Jesse’s 16th birthday, a goal was set to complete his project and achieve Eagle Scout by his 17th birthday, June 20. Unfortunately, Jesse’s third cancer situation was officially diagnosed in August.

“We found the cancer at camp,” he recalled. “At first we thought it was a bug bite. Jesse ran for Senior Patrol Leader, then began his project. We didn’t know any timeline, but starting when we did was a blessing.”

Barbiea said Jesse made efforts to achieve Eagle Scout until the very end, working on merit badges in the hospital. Meanwhile, Barbiea made an extra effort to get the overall project completed, a decorated mailbox designated as a place for flag disposal and official retirement.

Troop 007 planned to present the box during a special ceremony at the Shepherdsville City Fair/Bullitt Blast event. Ironically, the event took place on the same day as Jesse’s funeral service.

Along with Jesse’s many honors, Barbiea mentioned he had received status as an official certified Santa Claus, known as Santa J, through Santa University, a professional Santa Claus training school in Colorado.

“I play Santa and last year for our troop I told Jesse I needed help,” he said. “I had him sit down and I started putting the suit on him. He kept saying, ‘I’m gonna be Santa?’, and he loved it. He was Santa for those Cub Scouts. They knew it was Jesse, but they loved it.”

Barbiea mentioned that part of the Boy Scouts’ mission was built on servant leadership, something Jesse excelled at.

“Jesse was a natural at that,” he said. “He had that figured out early. We’ve had two of our Cub Scouts already say they want to be an Eagle Scout like Jesse. That’s what our legacy is going to be built on.”

Trevor eventually became a member of the North Bullitt JROTC, so Jesse immediately wanted to join. JROTC instructor 1SG Gene Siler first met Jesse during a career fair field trip when Jesse attended Zoneton Middle School.

“I told Siler that you’ve got one comin’ at you,” Barbiea recalled. “I told him he’s great, but he’s gonna wear you out.”

“I could see Jesse had some limitations,” Siler admitted. “But you automatically saw that personality come out that first day. This kid will try, this kid will give me everything he’s got, and it’s infectious. He never met a stranger.”

Siler considered not allowing Jesse into the program due to the many physical demands. When he changed his mind, Jesse’s acceptance from the other JROTC members let Siler know he would succeed.

“There were concerns, but he tried and he continued to give his best,” Siler said. “One of the best words to describe this place is family. When they walk in these doors, they’re one, they’re connected.”

Siler said when many JROTC members last saw Jesse, at the end of the school year, he was still the same Jesse.

“That’s what’s hard for these kids,” he said. “It was the same Jesse we’d known for years, and that’s the last time they saw him. It was an absolute shock for some of them.”

Siler added that the members’ surprise to the news was actually a testament to Jesse’s character.

“It defines him,” he said. “He’s made us all stronger and better. The kids have no idea what it means to me, to talk to them about Jesse and his story. It’s impactful for them to hear it from me, that he’s not suffering anymore, and it’s impactful to me to talk with them.”

Like many others, Siler will remember Jesse’s infectious smile and his unusual sense of humor.

“His smile would light up a room,” he said. “He told crazy jokes. It was Jesse being Jesse.”

In the last few days, Siler and JROTC instructor Maj. Kevin Clark discussed a rank promotion for Jesse, deciding on Cadet 1st Sergeant.

“It’s fitting,” Siler said. “To me, I thought it was perfect. As much as Jesse looked up to me, I had an influence on his life, and he had the same on mine, and now we have the same rank.”

Like Barbiea with the Scouts, Siler said Jesse had to do everything the other JROTC members would do, adding that Jesse always gave his best effort and never let obstacles define him.

“He would come to school after chemo treatments,” Siler said. “That energy and drive never wavered. The other kids fueled off of that. His story spread and the other JROTC members used it for strength and inspiration.”

North Bullitt hosted a regional drill meet in January, with Jesse participating. SSG Schelee Burkett, a Kentucky Army National Guard recruiter working with Bullitt County Public Schools, presented Jesse with a plaque from the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, declaring him an Honorary Kentucky Guardsman.

“Jesse’s drive and his personality light up a room,” Burkett said. “His courage and never-quit attitude influences all of us.”

Burkett remembered Jesse’s big heart, as well as his perseverance despite his own disabilities.

“As a recruiter, I help kids and find ways for them to get into the service,” she said. “For me, this kiddo, every single time I saw him, he asked me when I would put him in the Army. I can’t, but I sure would take 100 more with his heart.”

Burkett admitted to being impressed with how much determination Jesse had, hoping to be the best he could be through the JROTC program.

“As tired as he was sometimes, he pushed harder than others,” she said. “For as sick as he was, and for the age that he was, he dealt with it better than any older person did.”

Burkett mentioned Jesse’s inspiration was something that could benefit all prospective military members.

“For one to touch the hearts and lives of not only the North Bullitt JROTC cadets, but an entire community, that pretty impactful,” she said. “When we look at teenagers, we can see them being self-centered, having the ‘me’ attitude. But because of Jesse, that’s the last thing you see on their minds.”

Jesse appreciated all uniforms, whether it was military, firefighters, or police officers. Hillview Mayor Jim Eadens first met a younger Jesse when he would hang around the city’s police station. He said Jesse would attend many of the city’s public functions.

“He was a good boy,” Eadens said. “He was a friend and he was a real cut-up. He was an interesting kid. He had three different battles with cancer and I never heard him complain about being sick or about anything hurting.”

Jesse had the mayor’s phone number, constantly calling to make special requests, enough so that he earned his title as honorary mayor.

“He got more involved with things as he got older,” Eadens said. “He was always asking ‘Mr. Mayor’ for requests. I was helping to teach him how to drive. I found out later I was apparently the only one brave enough to take him out of the parking lot.”

Eadens said what he would remember most was Jesse’s big heart. He told a recent story about being at a civic function, where he hadn’t said hello to another individual.

“Jesse called me on it,” the mayor said. “He said I didn’t say hello to the person, and he wanted me to go shake hands and say hello. So I told him I would and I did. Jesse told me he wanted me to put him on speaker phone to make sure I did. A 17-year-old reminding a 57-year-old to love and forgive. That just kind of stuck with me.”

Eventually Eadens would join Jesse each year at the annual Bullitt County Relay for Life, as both were cancer survivors. Jesse was a popular figure at the Relay and a good example for the others that attended.

Relay co-coordinator Tony Lee said Jesse regularly attended for many years. Often times he would help carry the Relay banner around the track, leading other survivors on their victory lap.

“He was a fine young man,” said Lee. “I hate to see what happened to him at any age. He was one of our youngest survivors.”

Lee said Jesse always attended many civic functions, spotting him at Relay survivor dinners and North Bullitt JROTC functions.

“He was a pretty active guy,” he said. “He didn’t seem to be too sick. He always seemed to be enjoying himself.”

Jesse’s last couple of weeks were spent in his room at Norton Children’s Hospital, surrounded by family and those that he made an impact upon. It was there that Jesse was named an Eagle Scout and received his JROTC promotion.

Barbiea said Jesse laid quietly during his Eagle Scout ceremony. However, when the final announcement was made, and other Scouts applauded, Jesse opened his eyes and clapped along with great fervor.

On another evening, Barbiea held Jesse’s hand as the two went over the 12 points of Scout Law.

“We were going through them all, I was saying them out loud, and he was wording them back with me,” Barbiea said. “I reminded him that a Scout is brave, and can face danger even if he is afraid. I told him to be brave.”

When Jesse passed away late last Monday night, a procession was prepared to transport him from the hospital in downtown Louisville to Schoppenhorst-Underwood-Brooks Funeral Home in Hillview.

Barbiea mentioned Jesse’s body was wrapped in an American flag. He said police and fire units from various agencies participated in the procession, including Okolona and Zoneton firetrucks displaying red lights at each overpass.

“The procession home, that’s the stuff heroes get when they lose their lives in combat,” Siler said. “But Jesse fought his own war. He would’ve loved it, too, causing all that fuss. It was the perfect way to honor our hero.”

According to Siler, Jesse would be buried at Brookland Cemetery with full military honors.

“It speaks to Jesse’s legacy,” he said. “That’s the impact that the young man had.”

Siler said two JROTC members, Eric Dezarn and Chase Wardrip, were designated as pall bearers, along with two Troop 007 members and two firefighters.

“Anyone who is a JROTC member that attends, they will intermingle with firefighters and Boy Scouts in presenting a final salute,” Siler said.

Burkett mentioned that Kentucky Army National Guard commander Sgt. Maj. David Munden planned to attend the ceremony. She added that the National Guard would feature the same honors for Jesse as any other Kentucky Guardsman.

“I don’t think Jesse’s name will ever get lost somewhere,” said Burkett. “He left an impact on all of us.”

“Jesse reminded me to love one another no matter what,” Eadens said. “I will always try to remember that.”

“We’re going to miss him,” said Lee. “It’s gonna be a little different at the Relay without him.”

“Jesse has been everything to us,” Barbiea said. “I had four kids by birth, and then Jesse. I really believe my dad sent Jesse to meet me at that fire department. We’ll never stop loving him.”

“When people told me that God put us in each other’s lives for a reason, I believe that,” Siler said. “I made Jesse stronger and he gave me a purpose. Everything I gave him, he gave me all those things right back. He is, and forever will be, my hero.”

 

To see a collection of photos of Jesse taken by friends, family and The Pioneer News, click here.