Faces of Hunger: Leana Norrell

Leana Norrell shuddered for one flickering moment at the thought, but there was no hesitation in her answer.

“If not for the food bank here at Ric Rack we’d be hungry, simple as that,” Leana said.

In a world full of uncertainty, Leana and her family know more than most – way more. So, the fact that she knows she can absolutely depend on monthly supplements from Georgia Mountain Food Bank, as delivered to Ric Rack in Dawsonville, provides a foundation on which she can help anchor her family.

Because heaven knows that other factors recently threatened to carry the Norrells away.

Leana never suspected anything was wrong with her son Colton in the weeks after his birth.

Other than gestational diabetes, hers had been a pretty routine pregnancy. In fact, just two weeks after Colton arrived, she was already back at work, assisting patients at a cardiology practice.

At Colton’s two-month check-up, however, doctors noticed something wrong with Colton’s head.

“The doctor looked at him and said it looked too large for his age, and he sent us on to the emergency room,” Leana said.

It is a moment frozen in time in the Norrell household, for at the emergency room tests revealed Colton was suffering from a massive brain tumor. Life would never be the same.

The next year proved a gut-wrenching mix of hospital stays, procedures and cancer treatments, as Leana, her husband Christopher and Colton and spent 127 days at Scottish Rite in Atlanta.

Initially too young for an operation, Colton underwent chemotherapy treatments – only to discover that the two-pound tumor was leaking a gel-like substance into his skull.

Cue a round of operations to relieve the swelling and drainage, until, finally, in September, Colton underwent surgery to have 1.4 pounds of the tumor removed. More chemo awaited until he had the remaining bulk of the cancer removed just after his first birthday.

“He did great with everything; we thought we were coming out of the woods,” Leana said.

Then, once again, the sky caved in. Beginning in October of 2016, Colton began having seizures, and not just one or two as a result of surgery or trauma.

“At one point they determined he was having a seizure every 10 seconds,” Leana said. “Sometimes he has 200 in a day.”

Again, doctors went to work on little Colton. This time they installed a pacemaker for his brain. Connected to the vagus nerve, the pacemaker arrests most of his seizures, though Leana – or other care givers – must occasionally use a magnet to help offset the larger attacks. Medicine may one day be an option, but, at his age, the pacemaker is Colton’s best resource.

Needless to say, Leana, Christopher and both sets of grandparents are consumed with helping Colton to live his best life. And they are making progress. However, Leana has been unable to go back to work, and her family must now subsist on Christopher’s income alone while also seeing to Colton’s many needs.

In pre-K for three hours a day and attending physical therapy five days a week, Colton is growing and learning like any other child. And while the seizures continue to play a daily role in the life of the Norrell family, Colton’s health issues no longer feel insurmountable.

“Colton’s come a long way,” Leana said. “And we have some great help, both from family and from plenty of people at Ric Rack too.”

Considering that Leana spends eight or more hours per week just in preparing Colton’s food – he can only eat pureed food, though he can eat anything he likes in that form – every little bit helps. And knowing that they have access to a wide range of foods through Ric Rack and the donations from Georgia Mountain Food Bank has been a comfort.

“We wouldn’t be able to buy as many groceries as we’re able to supplement from here,” Leana said. “We applied for food stamps but were denied because we were right on the line. I found out about Ric Rack through an online support group. And I come in here once a month.”

Over the past two years it has become a monthly visit almost akin to seeing extended family.

“I know if I need anything I can reach out and ask. And they always ask how Colton is doing – every time I pull up the first question is, ‘How’s he doing?’ ” Leana said. “I can write down requests and they get it to me – like Colton loves beans – and that helps out a lot.”

It is a role that Ric Rack director Bob Inman is happy to play.

“We’re here to help the people that are hungry,” Bob said, before looking at Leana and adding, “we know it takes an awful lot to help your son, and if there’s anything to make it one iota easier, we’re here for you.”

Leana smiled appreciatively, Colton hugged to her lap.

“The only thing he doesn’t like so far is carrots!” Leana chuckled. “But this place has been great for us. Thank you so much.”

Georgia Mountain Food Bank (GMFB), a Partner Distribution Organization of the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB), collects surplus food and grocery products for distribution to nonprofit partner agencies serving the hungry in the Georgia Mountain region. Located in Gainesville, GMFB collaborates with ACFB to provide food to nonprofits with hunger relief programs in Dawson, Forsyth, Hall, Lumpkin and Union counties. These programs provide direct assistance to families and individuals who are in need of food assistance and may range from churches, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, rehabilitation programs, child care centers and nursing homes.

“We are proud to partner with more than 75 agencies throughout northeast Georgia to help families just like the Norrell family,” says Kay Blackstock, executive direction at GMFB. “Hunger is not new to our community. It has always been here, however, its face may be surprising. One single turn of events can leave a family in a situation they never thought imaginable. Yet, it is stories like the Norrell’s that keep us focused in our fight against hunger because it truly does matter and truly does make a difference.”