Joseph Tagaban (black coat, khaki pants) gets a group hug from close friends after he returned home from cancer treatment in Seattle, Nov. 20. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

14-year-old Joseph Tagaban returned home Saturday after nearly a year of cancer treatment in Seattle. Many community members met him at the airport. As KFSK’s Angela Denning reports, it was the best Thanksgiving gift he and his family could have asked for.

Dozens of people watch through a chain link fence as Joseph Tagaban and his family get off the jet. Wet snow is coming down but no one seems to care.

It was just after Christmas last year when Tagaban first learned he had a rare form of cancer known as AML. It started with swollen gums and ended with four rounds of chemo over several months.

In February, he spoke with KFSK over the phone. He said the treatment was more difficult than he imagined.

Especially the pain,” Tagaban had said. “Like extreme pain; it skyrockets sometimes and I just feel that it gets unbearable sometimes.”

Today, he’s out of the hospital gown and into a black puffy coat, khaki pants, and a red stocking hat. As he approaches the crowd, people start to chant, “Joseph Strong! Joseph Strong!”.

“Joseph Strong” is a slogan that’s been all over Petersburg for months, on t-shirts and posters throughout town.

Vanessa Miller cheers for Joseph Tagaban who returned home to Petersburg, Nov. 20. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Tagaban addresses the crowd.

“I just want to thank you all so much for the amount of support, for the amount of prayer, and the thought that you guys have all put into our journey back in Seattle,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you guys so much for always being there by my side.”

People start approaching him for hugs.

“Welcome home, buddy,” says a friend while patting his back.

Even though they’re outside, everyone is masked. A long embrace comes from classmate Iris Case. She later says that they kept in touch while he was away.

“The first couple of months a lot of people were in contact with him and then he went through a really rough patch and we just Face Timed a lot and he kind of helped me with school work,” Case said.

Joseph Tagaban gets a hug from classmate, Iris Case, after returning to Petersburg, Nov. 20. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

On most days, if Tagaban wasn’t too tired, he could attend school remotely from the hospital. Some teachers are in the crowd. He got straight A’s the first quarter of this year.

Watching it all from a distance is his mom, Je Tagaban. She’s overjoyed with the homecoming.

“Joseph’s here, he’s whole, he’s alive!” she said.

Tagaban’s immune system is still weak. The community has the worst outbreak of COVID its seen since the pandemic started. As of today, it’s the highest case count per capita in the country.

Je says her son asked her about being around the crowd.

“Mom, should I be hugging?” Je said. “I was like, ‘You know what, you have to be careful.’ But he was like, ‘But mom, I can’t promise, I want to get all the hugs I can.’ And I said, ‘Go for it’, you know.”

It might be a few weeks before Tagaban can safely return to school in-person. But he says the community support now, as it did before, keeps him looking to the future.

“One of the most important things that I had to keep in mind was to stay positive and stay confident that I was going to beat cancer,” he said. “So, I just kept that in the back of my mind and even though, I mean, I had my moments, I just couldn’t deal with having all this pain but I knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

The welcome doesn’t end here.

People get into their cars and Tagaban climbs into a fire truck for a noise parade through town.

Joseph Tagaban (white tennis shoes, black coat) stands in the middle of classmates who are holding signs of support for him, Nov. 20. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)