Kerri Stringfellow has been suiting up in burn-proof protective gear for a few years to help arrange and ignite the fireworks at the annual July 4 event in Kurten.
She’s a big fan of July 4, so it seemed to her boyfriend, Trent Janek, that it was the perfect place to ask a pretty big question.
On Thursday night, as the 21-year-old stood in a large pasture and helped with lighting the finale, Janek took the opportunity to ask her to be his wife.
“I usually help my dad light the finale, although it’s ironic because I’m afraid of fire, so I tend to light the finale fireworks and just run,” she said. “...I was trying to make sure each firework [set] was firing off at the same time, and I was busy moving them around. I almost ruined the proposal plan.
“My dad grabbed my shoulder, and I said, ‘Let me go!’ I was too worried the fireworks would hit me. But Dad turned me around, and there was Trent, on one knee.”
There was a time about 18 years ago, though, when it seemed like Kerri’s future was grim.
In February 2001, an article on the then-3-year-old appeared in The Eagle, featuring a heartwrenching image of a thin, bald toddler who was undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of muscle cancer.
Katrenia Stringfellow said she remembers the day in the fall of 2000 when a doctor made a visit to the family home to share the bad news: the mass found in her daughter's sinuses, which health professionals had been so sure was benign, had tested positive for cancer. Kerri had rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue tumor that primarily plagues children and babies.
“I dropped to my knees and just cried,” Katrenia said. “I was just thinking that she was never going to get to go to school, learn how to ride a bike, get married, have kids of her own.”
The community rallied around the Stringfellow family with emotional and financial support, and after more than a year of undergoing chemotherapy, radiation treatments and jaw surgery, Kerri’s cancer was declared to be in remission. Though the effects of her struggle would remain — she had lost her uvula and needed facial reconstruction as a teenager — the deadly disease never returned. She graduated Rudder High School in 2016 and went on to receive her EMT certification from Blinn College.
These days she’s healthy and confident. Not only has her cancer been overcome, it helped bring her together with the young man from Hallettsville who proposed to her Thursday under a sky full of fireworks.
It was back in 2017 when she met Janek, a Texas A&M student, while on the dance floor at Hurricane Harry’s in College Station. That chance encounter was a love story in the making.
“He just asked me to dance, and we’ve been dancing ever since,” Kerri said. “He actually didn’t know how to two-step, so I taught him how. And now he can flip me on the dance floor.”
Hurricane Harry’s facilitated some great dates, but the new couple’s love grew stronger when they bonded over a somewhat shared struggle.
Janek’s then 9-year-old brother Ryan was diagnosed with leukemia in 2016, and though he is currently in remission, at the time he was undergoing treatment. Janek was worried for his brother, and Kerri knew what it was like facing the unknowns of the disease. They comforted each other, and over time Kerri would even attend doctor’s appointments with Ryan and help the Janeks by relieving family members during overnight hospital stays.
“After Trent and I had a sit-down talk about Ryan having cancer and me having survived cancer, I talked with my roommate at the time and told her that Trent might just be ‘The One,’ ” Kerri recalled.
Janek said he can’t remember exactly when he knew he wanted to propose, but he’s known in his heart for more than a year that he wants to be with Kerri forever. He recently had the idea to propose to her at the Kurten Fireworks Show.
“As long as I’ve known Kerri, she gets excited around the Fourth of July,” he said. “She has a one-track mind; it’s her favorite holiday. She loves the fireworks and has always been a part of the show.”
Kerri was raised on the holiday celebration, as both her parents have worked for the Kurten Community Center and were volunteer firefighters there at one point. She said she knew Janek might propose to her sometime soon, but wasn’t expecting the question to come Thursday.
“I didn’t know at first that she’d said ‘yes,’ because I didn’t take into account that the fireworks would be so loud and we’d both have earplugs in,” Janek said. “So I had to ask again, ‘Was that a yes?’ ”
The couple plan to marry within the next two years. Janek is working to complete an engineering degree at Texas A&M, while Kerri Stringfellow is finishing a business associate’s degree at Blinn College, and aims to achieve her paramedic license in the near future.