Andrew Dys

Church lets young cancer victim keep touching lives

Kaitlyn Patterson is 10 years old, a fifth-grader at Independence Elementary School. Sometimes she'll take her lunch on a bench at the school that has a name memorialized on it. The name is Thomas Patterson. He was her big brother.

Thomas died almost four years ago. Cancer. He was 12.

And on Sundays, Kaitlyn goes to church at Shield of Faith on Firetower Road. Next to the sanctuary is a big metal building. It houses a gymnasium, kitchen and meeting space. Kaitlyn always looks to her left as she walks in the church doors.

There is a name written on the outside of the building.

The Thomas Patterson Life Center.

"It makes me happy to see his name up there on the side," Kaitlyn said. "Kind of like he lives on."

Sam Patterson is a firefighter in Charlotte. Some days, he roars up to a wrecked car and pulls out a kid. Other days, he climbs into a burning building and pulls out a kid.

He breathes life into the kid if he has to.

On off days, he coaches football at Castle Heights Middle School.

And on Sundays, when he too goes past the building with the tall black letters that shows the Thomas Patterson Life Center, he looks up and sees the name of the son who is gone.

"This was a kid who cared about sick kids, handicapped kids, more than himself," Sam Patterson said. "There used to be these two kids here at the church nursery. Couldn't communicate. In wheelchairs. Thomas would spend time with those kids, roll around on the floor with them, do whatever he could. He did it while he was sick."

All from a kid who died at age 12.

When the still-unnamed family life center was under construction, the Rev. Larry Soles at Shield of Faith was preaching one Sunday when the light bulb went off in his head. Soles, former military with a chin like a block of granite, is a no-nonsense guy. He does not suffer fools gladly.

Soles remembered the kid, Thomas, working with other kids. Especially disabled children. Soles remembered how Thomas wanted the building to be huge, with a gym, so that the church could host annual parties for hundreds of disabled children and adults from York County who often come to the church for special events.

"'Special people parties,' is what Thomas called them," Soles recalled. "He never used the word 'handicapped.'"

Thomas Patterson didn't raise any money for the life center. He didn't hammer a single nail.

But a decision was made that Sunday, in the spirit of what children and all of us can do, to name the building after Thomas.

"He didn't live long enough to see it, but this building is a testament to how Thomas touched so many people in his short life," Soles said. "How does one measure life? In Thomas's case, you measure it forever."

Last Sunday, Aug. 13, Sylvia Patterson pulled into the Shield of Faith parking lot. A Sunday like any other, right?

No.

Aug. 13 was Thomas' birthday.

"I cried and wanted to turn around and go home," Sylvia Patterson said.

But what she did was look at the name etched on the building and think of the confident, brash kid who died too young but changed lives before he even reached puberty.

Sylvia Patterson went into church undaunted. And she prayed.

The family life center was dedicated in Thomas' name more than two years ago. His portrait is in the vestibule, like the photo Kaitlyn had for years in her wish box on her dresser at home.

She didn't tell me her wish, so that the wish would come true.

But I think it already has.

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