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'Hugs for Hunter' fundraiser to help ill Derry boy, family

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Hunter Thomas

Hunter Luke Thomas was born April 29 in Excela Westmoreland Hospital in Greensburg. Nearly four months later, he still has not been able to go home.

Shortly after he was born, Hunter was flown to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and diagnosed with Down syndrome, congenital heart disease and congenital chylothorax, which allows fluid to pool around his lungs.

His dad, Jeremiah Thomas, said Hunter's diagnosis came as a surprise despite tests his wife, Joei, underwent throughout her pregnancy.

Hunter has undergone open-heart surgery and had four chest tubes inserted. He's likely to require multiple surgeries soon.

Jeremiah Thomas learned he would be losing his job while Joei was in labor.

“We've got to constantly go back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “It's definitely taken a toll because my wife works off of commission. ... My job called me about an hour before he was born and said, ‘If you can't work third shift, we've got to lay you off or let you go.'

“It's getting a little tricky to pay the mortgage and pay all the bills,” Thomas said.

Marie Cilli, a friend of the Thomas family, has organized a garage sale-style fundraiser to be held Saturday at Grandview Fire Hall at 1655 Ridge Road, Jeannette, to help ease the financial impact of their medical bills and countless trips to Pittsburgh.

“It costs them approximately $75 a day, because they live in Derry, to go down — for gasoline and to park and eat and everything,” Cilli said. “They also have six other children.”

With their other children, ranging in age from 3 to 18, the Thomases have the added strain of trying to split time between Pittsburgh and Derry.

On most days, Jeremiah Thomas said, they have time for only about two hours of sleep.

Volunteers will be on hand from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the fire hall to accept items donated for the sale, as well as nonperishable food items to help stock the family's pantry, Cilli said.

The fundraiser will run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, with baked goods available for purchase along with the garage sale items.

The Thomas family's “Hugs For Hunter” Facebook page had more than 8,300 “likes” as of Friday evening, and the website has been set up to sell “Hugs For Hunter” bracelets and take donations.

“There's people all over, even Australia, following Hunter really closely,” Jeremiah Thomas said of the page, which Joei often updates several times a day.

“Everybody wants to know day-to-day updates. It's kind of overwhelming how many people actually care, when it comes down to it, about our son,” he said. “Strangers I've never seen in my life, they want to hear updates of how he's doing.”

Volunteers for the garage sale are welcome. Call Cilli at 724-527-1653 for more information.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or