WATERTOWN -- This week, millions of Americans are celebrating miracles. One Watertown family knows what it is like to see something incredible unfold in front of them. Their journey isn't without fear and pain. 8-year-old Landyn Zoellick has survived brain cancer not once, but twice. His parents say helping him defeat the disease has been an incredible belief that he will overcome anything thrown his way. Landyn's confidence was given a boost this year thanks to a surprise orchestrated by classmates who were once unsure they'd ever get to share the classroom with him again.
"He really didn't have his balance. He was really off balance when he walked," said mom, Ashley, who described how the trouble started in 2017 when Landyn was just 5 years old.
"Then, the headaches were more and more frequent," added dad, Casey.
Just days before Landyn was set to enroll in kindergarten, he was taken to be checked out by doctors in Madison. His parents recalled the moment they got the bad news.
"The world just stopped, in a sense," said Ashley.
"And when they told us, I felt like I was in tunnel vision, and I couldn't even really think," said Casey.
Landyn was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. A tumor was discovered in the back of his head about the size of an apricot. If the cancer wasn't bad enough, the side effects proved just as daunting.
"He had heart failure twice, and was looking at almost kidney failure," recalled Ashley.
Landyn would have to learn to walk, talk and even swallow again, which is why at Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Watertown, they are so happy to have him.
"We want them to know every single day they are loved not only by God, but by us, too," said Principal Amy Gromowski.
Landyn's arrival at school may have been delayed, but cancer would not keep him away. He is now in Danielle Bely's first-grade class.
"He is an amazing little boy. He really is. With everything that he has gone through, he has really taught me what it is like to have true faith," said Bely.
The prayers for Landyn here started before they knew him. Teachers met him for the first time in the hospital, and at home. He's now fully integrated into the class, just like any other child. His parents believe he's found the perfect school to attend.
"They love him. They truly love him," said Ashley.
His mother said classmates may be curious at times, but Landyn has learned to handle himself well.
"Of course, they have questions like, why don't you have hair, and he just tells them, 'because I had radiation,'" said Ashley.
Landyn became a kid who fits right in, which it made it so tough that soon, all of it was at risk of going away.
"They said it was the cancer that came back," said Ashley, recalling the words of a doctor.
A tumor the size of a blueberry appeared. Casey said it was a gut punch for the whole family.
"Just turn around, and back at it again," said Casey.
Battling cancer is tough enough for any family. Learning the family would be facing challenges for a second time, those at Landyn's school knew they had to do something. An idea started with one of Landyn's teachers.
"She came to me and said, 'You know, Landyn has to have surgery again. I just think it's important we're all there to support him,'" said Gromowski.
The teacher thought the school should do a big surprise send-off.
"I said, 'I love that idea. Let's do it,'" Gromowski recalled telling staff.
Ashley Zoellick said another miracle was in the works, getting the whole school to surprise her son without tipping off the 8-year-old.
"By the grace of God, he was not aware what was going on, and even the day of, he still didn't seem to have a clue," said Ashley.
On his final day before heading for treatments in Illinois, Landyn was held back in a classroom at the end of the day, as the entire school lined up outside.
From kindergarten to eighth grade, the entire school secretly wrote down messages of support and prayer.
His teacher described the moment Landyn walked outside as the students prepared to deliver them.
"When we saw everybody there, and realized all the support and all the love, he just glowed! His face lit up," said Bely.
Landyn was so excited, he ran down the line of students.
"He got so far ahead of us," recalled Casey. "Me and Ashley were trying to keep up and try to collect everything he was missing."
Landyn and his parents said those message have helped him fight off the second scare with cancer. Support from the school has lifted the family on their darkest days, and allowed Landyn to return to Good Shepherd once again.
"He is just strong and amazing. He is so much stronger than we are for sure. For sure," said Ashley.
Landyn is now back at the place where they teach that with love and support, anything is possible, but like most children in Wisconsin, he is currently attending school through e-learning during the coronavirus pandemic. His family said he remains happy and healthy.
The family's medical bills are still growing as Landyn continues regular visits to the doctor.
If you would like to help the Zoellick family, a fund has been set up through Associated Bank. You can donate at any branch simply by sending contributions to Landyn's fund called "LANDYNSTRONG."