When Dustin Bortzfield heard about the tragic accident which struck John Palmer’s young family, he felt moved to help in some way. The two friends had walked the halls of Lake Highlands High together, with Palmer graduating in 1998 and Bortzfield graduating in 1999. They had sat in the same chemistry class and suited up on the same Wildcat football team.
On April 21, 2020, Palmer and his wife, Katie, were taking a morning walk when a pickup truck veered off the road and struck them both. Palmer recovered from his injuries, but Katie was airlifted to the hospital, where she later died.
“The silver lining,” said Bortzfield, a Grapevine firefighter, “was the family’s decision to donate Katie’s heart, liver, lungs and kidneys. Her gifts went on to help 7 other people, but Katie’s loss to John and the kids – that’s something I just couldn’t wrap my mind around.”
Bortzfield followed the story on Facebook, but he felt a need to reach out to his former teammate.
“I had a desire to do something,” recalled Bortzfield. “I wanted to take him to lunch, but that felt awkward. Mind you, I haven’t talked to John in 20 years.”
Bortzfield reached Palmer by phone and said he’d like to use his side gig hanging Christmas lights to bring a little joy to the Palmer household. Then he added something truly unexpected – he wanted to form the Katie Palmer Project to encourage other contractors in other neighborhoods to hang lights for other families undergoing hardship.
“I couldn’t help but think I know other firemen who might help, and we all have side gigs,” Bortzfield told me. “I spoke to a few, and they said, ‘Stop talking. We’re in.’” After about a week, the Katie Palmer Project is off and running, with 6 contractors committed so far.
To nominate a family which has endured hardship or loss over the past year, log on here and share their story. Bortzfield will let you know if their house has been chosen to become a “Katie’s House.” To provide time and labor hanging lights, click here. To donate funds for materials, click here. It’s easier to find contractors if materials are paid for, Bortzfield said.
So far, most Katie Palmer Project volunteers are from the Sherman-Denison area, where Katie worked as a beloved middle school teacher and coach and the Palmer kids, Brandon and Bella, attend school. Bortzfield is hoping volunteers and donors in the Lake Highlands community will be inspired to join the effort.
“The mission is twofold for me – to help share Katie’s light and to give back to the community that gave so much to John and me. It’s not just about donations. It’s about putting smiles on the faces of families that have had a rough year.”
Now that his website is up-and-running, Bortzfield is thinking big – envisioning ways to help as many people as possible.
“I’d like to see this go statewide. There are firemen all over Texas. We love to give back. Let’s make it something John and [Katie’s mom] Rhonda and the kids can be proud of.”