June 6, 2014 at 7:48 AM ET
It was an exciting time for Zack Ruediger: The Missouri teen was about to graduate from high school and celebrate the milestone with his longtime classmates. But just days before his graduation ceremony, his father suddenly passed away.
During surgery to repair a broken hip, Zack's dad developed a blood clot and died. Just two years prior, Zack lost his mother, an 11-year survivor of breast cancer, to complications from bone cancer treatments.
The teen considered not attending graduation. "When (my father) passed away, I thought about not going," Zack told TODAY.com. "There were things to be taken care of, and this was the last thing I needed to worry about. But my sisters and brothers encouraged me to go ... and I'm glad I did."
Zack’s classmates and teachers at Hermann High School and co-workers at the Hermann Veterinary Clinic knew he was going through an extremely difficult time, so they decided to lend a hand.
As each of his 68 classmates received their diplomas, they carried on a tradition for graduating seniors at Hermann High: They handed money to the school's principal to be donated to charity. This year, everyone decided that all the money raised would be given to Zack — but Zack himself had no idea what was coming.
"I saw (the other students) handing money to him and I was kind of wondering what it was for," Zack said. "I didn't want to reach in my pocket during the line up because I thought that would look really weird. So afterwards I pulled out about $6 and told him "this is all the money I have. I'm sorry."
School Principal Kent Sherrow confessed that he almost spoiled the surprise. "A group of kids wanted to take a picture with me and I had already collected money, but a few other people came up and gave me money after the ceremony,” Sherrow told TODAY.com. “Zack pulled out his wallet and handed me what looked like his last six dollars. I said, ‘What are you doing? We're collecting the money for you!’ And then another student grabbed me and said, ‘He doesn’t know yet!’”
Later that day on a bus ride to Project Graduation, a party the school throws every year for graduating seniors, the truth came out: A secretary announced that the students had raised about $800 and that it would all be going to Zack and his family.
"I was kind of shocked that it was for me," Zack said. "I figured there were a lot more people out there worse off than me. Sure, I may have it bad right now, but it's not something I can't recover from. A lot more people out there deserve money more than me. I was just shocked and very grateful because it helps out a lot. I'll always be indebted to them, which is fine. I'll do my best for my fellow graduates if they ever need help."
"He was just overwhelmed," Gary Leimkuehler, the school district's deputy superintendent and former principal of Hermann High, told TODAY.com. "He called his sister and aunt and said, ‘I didn’t know what I was donating to.’ He was overwhelmed to the point of tears."
The tradition of handing money over at graduation goes way back at Hermann High. In 2011, the Hermann seniors donated to the high school in Joplin, Missouri, the town ravaged by a tornado, and another year they sent care packages to solders in Afghanistan.
"That's the kind of community we live in," Leimkuehler said. "It's kind of an everyday event around here — we step up and help someone in need."
Dr. Steve Strubberg, owner of the Hermann Veterinary Clinic where Zack has worked as an assistant for three years, heard about the plan that had been hatched for Zack and he also wanted to help.
"The school faculty and staff came up with idea," Strubberg said. "They knew I've always been supportive of Zack because he's been so good to us and I offered to make a matching donation up to certain point to encourage students to donate more....
"He's been so mature and handled so much of it himself. He doesn’t ask for much help and goes on and still makes it work."
Between the student contributions and Strubberg's, a total of $1,300 was raised to help Zack get back on his feet in the wake of his family's tragedy and start school at Lincoln College of Technology in Indianapolis later this month.
The Community Foundation of the Hermann Area has set up a fund in Zack's name. For details, visit this site.