Heart for service: Inspired teens send Easter smiles to children battling cancer

April 11, 2011 6:15:00 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


The next time someone complains about the self-centered nature of today''s youth, point them to Heritage Academy alumnus Drew Estes and the junior class at Immanuel Center for Christian Education. 


Peter Cottontail got a little help from them all Monday, when 25 Easter baskets were assembled for delivery to the pediatric cancer unit at the University of Mississippi Children''s Hospital in Jackson. The best part of the story is that, far from being a one-time good deed, the basket project is only one instance in an ongoing tradition of service for everyone involved. 




A Hope for Life 


The plush bunnies, sailor-style hats, decorative markers, small toys and plastic eggs -- sure to bring smiles to children restricted to a hospital ward -- were brought to Immanuel School by Estes and his University of Alabama classmate Micah Lawson. It''s all part of their larger vision for "A Hope for Life."  


The nonprofit charitable organization was founded by 19-year-old Drew, the son of Sheila and Doug Estes of Columbus, Lawson and former classmate Yulexis Argota. They were inspired, in part, by the movie "My Sister''s Keeper," based on the book by Jodi Picoult. 


"We were all freshmen at Alabama and got to talking; we felt there had to be something more we could do to help," said Estes. The trio wanted to involve other college students, to inspire people on a personal level to lend a helping hand to give hope and faith to those who need it most.  


Remarkably, within the span of about a year, the young men had created a 501(c)(3) foundation committed to helping children with cancer. Their very first project, last spring, was preparing Easter baskets. The seasonal treats pleased young recipients at Children''s Hospital in Birmingham so much last year, Hope for Life wanted to do baskets again this year, for another hospital. 


"An Easter basket may not seem like a big deal, but the reaction from the kids has been amazing -- they laugh, they light up every time," said Estes. "All the baskets have a personalized card in them that one of the older kids made, like one friend to another." 




A good fit 


Immanuel''s juniors were a perfect fit to assist in assembling the baskets that will be distributed April 21 in Jackson. Several in the class recently made a trip to the St. Jude Ronald McDonald House in Memphis, Tenn. That personal contact with young cancer patients triggered an instant empathy. 


Audrey Moss, the 17-year-old daughter of Ruthie and Bill Moss, was on that outing. 


"So many of the children who will get these baskets won''t get to go home for Easter," she said. "And doing this is really a bonding thing for our class." 


Of the students, Estes said, "We figured Immanuel would be a great school to do this with; they were wonderful." 


Immanuel teacher Janice Ryals agrees. She sponsors the National Honor Society at the school located in eastern Lowndes County and helped coordinate logistics for the basket assembly. 


"This is really a benevolent group of kids," she praised. "Many of them really have a heart for helping." 


That much is evident in the community service work they''ve undertaken. As National Honor Society or junior class projects, the teens have also participated in Operation Christmas Child, served at the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen and walked dogs and donated supplies at the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society. Above and beyond, they have also "adopted" a 15-year-old boy living in a Kenyan orphanage. 


The supportive relationship was spearheaded by class president Jeremy Davidson, the son of Janice and Craig Davidson. He first met the young man on a mission trip to Kenya last year. 


"We send letters and pictures, and try to send funds periodically," said Jeremy, who has an avid interest in outreach.  


Bringing the Immanuel students in on the Easter basket project is simply one more extension of what Drew Estes calls "kids helping kids." 


Junior Nathaniel Howell gets it. "Things like this are when you can come together, set any differences aside, because it''s not just for you -- it''s for someone else," he said. 


Attitudes like those found at Immanuel, and every other school, church or neighborhood group unselfishly giving back, fuel Estes, who said, "We have the vision that, with a small amount of love and dedication, a few can inspire many ... " 


Learn more about A Hope for Life, including how to make a tax-deductible donation, at ahopeforlife.org.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.