Like other third-graders at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville, Gabe Valentine has been anticipating the first day of school. What he and his family did not foresee is that Gabe would be meeting his new teacher via FaceTime from a hospital room in Birmingham, Alabama. The youngster, who will be 8 this month, has seen far more than his share of such rooms.
Gabe — popularly known as Super Gabe Valentine, for the superhero he is — has a rare genetic disorder, junctional epidermolysis bullosa, or EB. The condition makes his skin so fragile that the slightest friction or bump can create painful blisters and tears. It also affects the lining of the mouth, the digestive tract, various organs and joints. There is no cure. It may be the worst disease most people have never heard of.
Lee Gibson hopes to change that, in part, with “Art for EB” on Saturday, Aug. 13. The artist widely known for her prolific work in oils is Gabe’s grandmother. She is witness to the brave counterattack the boy and his parents, Gibson’s daughter Nell and husband Michael, wage daily against EB.
On Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Columbus, 25 to 30 of Gibson’s oil paintings will be displayed at Ole Homestead, the home of Rufus and Karen Ward, at 302 College St. The event in honor of Gabe will also provide an opportunity to learn about the challenges of EB.
Special artist pricing will be in effect for the occasion; a portion of sales will go towards EB Research Partnership. Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served. RSVPs are requested to firstname.lastname@example.org or on the Facebook events page for Art for EB.
“I had never heard of EB until I learned of Gabe and his condition years ago,” said Rufus Ward, who already has 14 paintings by Gibson. “We love Lee’s work and wanted to do a fundraiser for EB.”
Gibson appreciates the opportunity to bring attention to the debilitating illness her grandson battles. “It’s been a very painful thing,” she said. “And because it is so rare and so few are affected by it, EB doesn’t get the dollars for research that many other diseases do.”
After a bone marrow transplant in Minnesota in December 2015, Gabe spent five months in the hospital. The donor was a “wonderful, generous woman in Europe,” his mother said.
“It’s already had an impact; the blisters that were on his face are gone,” Nell Valentine shared. “What we’re doing now is fighting like crazy to keep infections from taking over and destroying the healing that has happened.”
Recent months have been filled with recurring hospital stays, meticulous daily wound care there and at home, medications and home doctor visits, interspersed with Gabe’s good days, when he is able to enjoy some of the things a 7-year-old should: family, friends, schooling and the attention of his fans, which include Mississippi State University athletes.
“The Athletic Department at MSU has been incredible,” said Gibson. “Football, golf, basketball … so many of the teams have embraced him.” So has the Starkville community.
“I’ve been amazed at all the good, sweet, loving things that I’ve seen the people of Starkville pour out to Gabe, Nell and Mike,” remarked Gabe’s grandparent.
Nell Valentine emphasized, too, that the family wouldn’t be where it is today without the doctors, teachers, school and community support shown.
Stacy Weems was Gabe’s second-grade teacher last year at Sudduth Elementary. During post-transplant months, she collaborated and faxed lessons to a tutor the family arranged for Gabe while he recuperated. This summer, Weems willingly traveled weekly from her home in West Point to Gabe’s home in Starkville to tutor — usually with one of his favorite treats in hand, a hot fudge sundae from Bop’s.
“He’s very smart. He is just amazing; he never, never complains,” said Weems. “Gabe has incredible friends and classmates; you can’t help but love him.”
“He’s a smart little critter,” Gibson echoed. “A bright, bright child.”
As health care professionals work together to help Gabe, his family nurtures hope that he will soon be able to spend some time at home and even see his new teacher and fellow third-graders face to face at school.
His grandmother, in the meantime, is finalizing preparations for Saturday’s “Art for EB.” “I hope to make folks at least somewhat aware of this genetic disease,” said Gibson, who will have fliers to distribute at this event combining art and awareness.
The artist’s vibrant canvases have attracted a large following outside of the area, Ward said. “She’s been in galleries from Memphis to Destin, so we’re excited to have a chance to let people in Columbus see what she is doing.”
About the artist
Raised in Maryland, and Connecticut, Gibson was educated at the University of Arizona and Radford University in Virginia. She has traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. In 1992-93, she lived in Warsaw, Poland, and studied in art capitals of the world including Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Budapest, London and Rome, as well as in Ireland and Costa Rica. She also studied at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. Based in West Point for many years, Gibson currently lives in Starkville.
Some of her work can be seen online at leegibsonart.com and on Facebook. Super Gabe Valentine also has a Facebook page.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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