Close to 20 people packed into the lobby at F.C. Tucker South in Greenwood on Thursday, sporting t-shirts, bracelets and other items with the words “Whitney Strong.”
Friends and family of Whitney Willey had come to the real estate office to witness something special — the realization of a dream in the midst of great struggle.
Willey and her husband, Austyn, were about to walk in the door to finalize closing on their new home. The day was the culmination of months of ups and downs, punctuated by shattering news. Days after making an offer on the house, Willey had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in her lymph nodes.
“I struggled with it for a while. We cried for two weeks,” she said. “But then I decided, it is what it is, and things will be OK.”
But by relying on their faith, and the support of seemingly all corners of the community, the family would finally have their own place as Willey goes through treatment to slow the cancer’s spread. The new home moves the Willeys out of a rental home and into a more permanent space, where they and their three children can make memories together.
The response they’ve seen through the home buying process — from friends and family to local contractors to their real estate agent — has helped their dream come true.
“Finding out I was sick, now what happens? How do we work on a house and afford all of these things? Then everyone came together to donate all of these things,” Whitney Willey said. “I cried and cried and cried every time someone called.”
The Willeys had been searching for a new home for months. Though they had considered purchasing the Franklin rental house they had lived in for the past three years, for various reasons they decided it would not work for them and their three kids, ages 15, 12 and 5.
They looked around for other places, and found one on the outskirts of Franklin. But throughout the process, Whitney Willey was feeling increasingly ill. Since she had been treated for cancer two years prior, her first thought was a recurrence.
“They told me everything looked great, my blood work came back great. And I told the doctor I didn’t feel great — something seemed off,” she said. “She asked me what I wanted to do, and I wanted a head-to-toe scan.”
In January, the family had put an offer in on the Franklin house. Two days after, her doctors informed the scan had detected cancer throughout her body, including in her lymph nodes. There was no cure.
Both Whitney and Austyn Willey, as well as their children, opted to turn to their faith to persevere. Earlier, they had started attending Creekside Church of Christ in Franklin, where they befriended Neil Tremblett, who was preaching at the church in addition to his job as a real estate agent.
The Willeys and Trembletts became friends, and when Tremblett found out they were renting and having trouble securing a loan for a new home, he offered to help.
“I went out to see the place they were renting, and it wasn’t good for them, so we started the process of talking about things and looking at houses,” he said. “In the process of all of that, we found out she had Stage 4 terminal cancer.”
Tremblett took the role of providing spiritual guidance for them as they dealt with the cancer diagnosis, as well as lining up everything to allow them to close on their new house.
“I’ve been dealing with this on a couple levels. One is as an evangelist, another is as Realtor, and the third is as good friends,” Tremblett said. “Watching them go through this whole process has been agonizing.”
After she was diagnosed, her family and friends came to comfort her, offering whatever support they could. When they asked what she wanted, she had one answer — she wanted everyone to come back to church together.
“I wanted everyone to be at church, and everything would be OK,” she said.
Whitney Willey’s faith has helped her weather challenges that otherwise may seem insurmountable. As her cancer is incurable, her doctors have placed her on three separate chemotherapy drugs, which she takes every three weeks.
“I’m sick for about a week and a half until I can shower and get dressed, and feel some normalcy again,” she said.
Through all of that, Tremblett has worked with them to complete the purchase of their home.
But their efforts suffered setback after setback, as efforts to secure a loan were repeatedly delayed. Leading up to Thursday’s closing date, everyone involved was cautiously optimistic.
“Every time they turned around, it was one thing after another after another,” Tremblett said. “To get to this day feels good.”
People kept asking if they were excited, Whitney Willey said.
“I kept telling them no, not until someone hands me the keys,” she said.
As Whitney and Austyn Willey sat in a conference room, signing their signatures page after page, that realization grew closer. Finally, the key was slid to them across the table. They had their home.
“We’re so excited. So relieved,” she said. “Time after time, we were told we were going to close, and then it didn’t work. I even pushed my chemo back.”
So many have come forward to help. Companies have offered to help with new carpet, padding and labor for the entire house, as well as repairs on the plumbing, a new water heater, heating and air units.
The new home’s foundation is damaged, resulting in water in the basement — which is slated to be the kid’s rooms. Another company offered to fix it at a discounted price.
“None of this would be possible if not for the donations,” Whitney Willey said.
The family owns a small business, Willey Flooring, which remains open to provide income for the family. Whitney Willey isn’t able to work anymore, so they are relying on the business to stay steady as they struggle with medical bills on top of other costs.
“We’re just trying to navigate through it,” Whitney Willey said.
Supporters have stepped forward to serve as de-facto marketing crew, using social media and word of mouth to encourage people to go to the family with their flooring projects.
“If you’re looking for flooring, these are your people,” Tremblett said.
Doctors are unsure of Whitney Willey’s prognosis. She could have months, a year or longer; it depends how the cancer reacts to the chemotherapy.
But the family has vowed to place their trust in God and enjoy however long they have together.
“I’m at peace with it. People think I’m crazy, but I just think it’s going to be OK. And if it’s not, God has another plan for me,” she said.
How to help
A donation account has been set up at Huntington Bank to help Whitney Willey and her family. People can make donations at the Huntington branch at 1126 N. Main St., Franklin.
They can also make donations by Zelle, at email@example.com or Venmo at Austyn-Willey.
For information about Willey Flooring, go to facebook.com/willeyflooringllc or call (317) 993-7927.
On Saturday, Retro and Wolf gaming will be doing a live-stream on their page to raise money for Willey. The 12-hour charity stream starts at 8 a.m. with a series of video game streams, ending with a live Dungeons & Dragons session. Giveaways and prizes will be given out throughout the day. People can take part and find information about donating at Facebook.com/retroandwolf.
More information: Whitney’s Walk with Cancer NEW on Facebook