The workday for veteran teacher Barb Heim is not done until she makes a 20-minute drive from school to deliver the day's lesson to a special student in a fight for his life.
Heim, who is in her 35th year as a first-grade teacher at Conneaut Valley Elementary School in Conneautville, Pennsylvania, has gone the extra mile to make sure second-grader Harrison Conner keeps his spirits up and his learning on track as he goes through treatment for leukemia.
While the school returned to in-person classes in the fall, Harrison has remained in remote schooling due to his medical condition, so Heim decided to bring the classroom to him every day after school.
The two of them wear masks and Heim also wears a face shield as she gives him the day's lesson through a Plexiglass screen at a table in Harrison's home. Heim spoke to Harry Smith on TODAY Friday during Teacher Appreciation Week about their special bond.
"It was a joy, because I knew he wanted to learn," she said. "He couldn't wait. He was so excited. And he'd have his off days if medicine was causing him to not feel up to it. It wasn't the best day for him, but we made it through. And he always did his best."
Near the end of 2019, Heim first noticed there was something off with Harrison during recess inside the school gym. Instead of being active, he would often turn pale and have to sit down while the other kids were playing.
The school nurse notified Harrison's mother, Suzanne, before the school closed for Christmas break. Heim then found out the difficult news about Harrison's diagnosis when school returned.
"One of these little guys from my class walks in the doorway, makes a beeline to my desk, and says, 'Mrs. Heim, Harrison went on a helicopter ride to the hospital,''' Heim said.
Harrison's absence in class was felt by his teacher and classmates.
"Oh, he's an amazing little guy," Heim said. "He is so much fun in class. You could have 100 of him in a classroom, and you would still take more because he has that sense about him. He wants to learn. He loves to learn new things."
Months before Zoom became a fact of life for millions of children learning remotely, Heim's class would call Harrison on Zoom every day after recess while he was at home.
Heim would read a story while his classmates made sure to say hello to their buddy. Then the pandemic began, isolating Harrison from his friends and classmates.
That's when Heim jumped into action to make sure he wouldn't fall behind.
"It goes far beyond her just coming here for school," Suzanne Conner told Smith. "Ever since the minute he was diagnosed ... she has been absolutely amazing. She has kept Harrison such a part of the kids' lives in school and making sure that he feels remembered.
"It's not like a teacher is coming from school to teach, she's like an aunt who is coming over to hang out, and she brings goodies, and she is always bringing a smile," she said. "My kids will meet her at the front door with all the latest news and it's incredibly, incredibly, special."
Today, Harrison is in remission, but he has another year and a half of treatment. A COVID-19 scare in the Conner household has put their visits on hold for now, but Heim said a day doesn't go by without her thinking about him.
"I'm lucky to be his teacher," she said. "I'm the lucky one."