ROCKWELL CITY - Sometimes surviving a tragic experience can instill one with a passion to help others dealing with the same thing.
When Jacy McAlexander was 8 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer. But he was one of the lucky ones; after treatment the cancer did not return, and he's healthy again.
Now 12 years old and in sixth grade, most signs of the difficult chemo process he went through are gone. He's in tackle football right now, and also plays soccer, golf, basketball and baseball and plays trumpet in the school band. His dirty-blond hair is long enough again for his mother to fuss over combing it.
Jacy McAlexander examines a single pop can tab out of a collection of more than 760,000. McAlexander is collecting 1 million pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald house in Des Moines. Rather than spend all day counting, he weighs the boxes on a medical scale. One pound of tabs is about 1,267 tabs.
But one other thing the cancer gave him has not gone away - a deep concern for others.
"It's absolutely the scariest thing you could do in your life, to find out your child has cancer," said Jacy's mother, Kerri McAlexander. "There's two things you can do with that - you can make something positive, and that's what we've chosen to do."
"It was a whirlwind at first. Monday we went to the doctor," said Earl McAlexander.
"He needed a CT scan on Wednesday," Kerri McAlexander continued, "and Friday morning we met with the surgeon and he said he needed surgery Monday morning. It was less than a week from going in with a minor complaint to having surgery."
Surgeons took out a tumor "the size of mom's fist," Jacy said. Since this cancer was Ewing's sarcoma, which attaches to long bones, two of Jacy's ribs were also removed.
Over the next eight months, Jacy McAlexander went through 14 rounds of chemo; each round took three to five days.
Throughout the process, the family greatly benefited from the Ronald McDonald house, a home for parents to stay at while their children are in the hospital.
"When treatment started, the Ronald McDonald house is about a block from the hospital, and I would go there and stay," Earl McAlexander said. "They would provide food; they would come in and cook every night. There would be food there for breakfast and leftovers for dinner. Kerri stayed with Jacy at the hospital but sometimes she would come and take a shower there."
"It was good to get away from the hospital sometimes," she said.
They also did laundry at the house, and had a place to cook for Jacy, especially as the treatments went on and his appetite became more particular.
"There's no way we could've afforded a hotel and food for, I think it was 75 to 80 nights," Kerri McAlexander said.
Though he didn't spend much time there himself, Jacy developed a close connection with some of the workers at the house, such as Executive Director Brenda Miller and House Resident Manager Florence Pueschel.
"(Florence) used to be a pediatric nurse so she really knows the ins and outs of kids with cancer," Kerri McAlexander said.
"She helped motivate me," Jacy McAlexander said. "If I was having a rough time after treatment, she'd tell me it wouldn't last."
When it was all over, Jacy wanted to show the workers his gratitude.
"They helped us so much," Jacy said. "I just remember how bad it felt to be in the hospital, and that all the kids that are in it now."
Jacy saw a newspaper story about someone who had collected a million pop tabs for the house, which can sell them for the aluminum, and he wanted to do the same.
"We've always done this ourselves, but we've done it hard with him for the last couple years," said Kerri McAlexander.
The McAlexanders set up pickup stations at locations around town such as banks and schools. As word got out, people began bringing bags of tabs to their home or dropping them off with Kerri at her second-grade classroom.
"Kids I don't even know walk up to me and hand me pop tabs," she said.
Jacy will need 800 pounds of pop tabs to reach his goal. So far he's collected more than 600 pounds.
"We got to know other families who were still going through things after Jacy was done. Jacy knew they were needing things, so he thought he could help those families out too," said Earl McAlexander.
Other groups also left a lasting impact on the family, such as the Child Life Specialists at Blank Children's Hospital and the Children's Cancer Connection, which puts on a summer camp for kids with cancer and their siblings.
"Their job is just to give the kids whatever they want," Kerri McAlexander said of the Child Life Specialists. "They knew Jacy liked crafts, so they'd bring a whole crate of arts and crafts things down for us."
To raise money for some of these places, Jacy held two garage sales.
"I sold my old toys to raise money for the Ronald McDonald house and Child Life Specialists," he said.
"He needed to get some things out of his room, so he thought it would be a good idea to sell them. We did that two different times," Earl McAlexander said.
"The second time there were no prices on the things, it was just whatever people offered."
At the Children's Cancer Connection, one of their main fundraisers every year is selling Christmas cards designed by the kids. Jacy's design was one of 10 accepted last year. Jacy sold $320 worth of cards to his family and friends.
In the last year, Jacy raised over $1,000 for the Calhoun County Relay for Life. He also has spoken in churches and civic groups like Rotary and Lions to raise awareness of the McDonald house and the Life Specialists.
He's been named a junior ambassador by the McDonald house for his work, and was awarded a $1,000 scholarship by the Kohl's Cares Scholarship Program.
In all, Jacy has raised over $2,000 for the four foundations in just the past year. He's not planning no slow down, either.
"When we reach 1 million (tabs), we're going to start over again on the next million," Earl McAlexander said.