Article From The Lancaster News
By Kayla Vaughn
After months of treatment at Levine Children’s Hospital, one 7-year-old girl, along with her two older sisters, is handing out toys and spreading holiday cheer to kids there.
Charlee Rivers spent the first 50 days of her life in the Charlotte hospital after it was discovered she has hypoplastic left heart syndrome. She has since spent 150 days in the hospital and undergone multiple open-heart surgeries.
Charlee and her sisters and parents delivered hundreds of gifts to kids at Levine on Saturday, something the family has been doing since 2016.
“We got to know that place well,” said Charlee’s mom, Dustee Rivers. “It meant so much when people brought her stuff, so we wanted to do the same for others who are in similar situations. We all look forward to it every year.”
Rivers said her two oldest daughters, Gabrielle and Madeline, had to grow up a lot faster than most kids, watching what their sister went through.
“When she was born, they expected to be able to bring her home and hold her and play with her, but that wasn’t the case,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience, and we learned to appreciate life and our family so much more because of it.”
The Rivers family has been distributing gifts at the medical facility for a few years, but the project, named Charlee’s Christmas Chest Toy Drive, grew much more this holiday season.
Gabrielle, 17, was a recipient of Lancaster’s Good Samaritan Scholarship. She decided to promote the toy drive with the help of the scholarship foundation.
With the Good Samaritan Scholarship Foundation, Gabrielle was able to take up donations from the different high schools around Lancaster County, along with the donations already coming in from the family’s church and friends. Members of the foundation got together with the family and other scholarship recipients two weeks ago to sort toys at USC Lancaster.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Rivers said. “It makes my heart full to see them want to do this. It’s such a meaningful family event, and Gabrielle has a caring heart.”
Gabrielle said the student council at Buford High School, which she attends, collected more than 100 toys.
“My sister spent so much time in the hospital, and my family was there constantly,” she said. “We saw how hard it is for families that are there months at a time, especially over Christmas.”
Gabrielle graduates in the spring and plans to attend the University of South Carolina, majoring in nursing. Her choice in major was affected greatly by the experience with her sister, as well as her mom’s profession.
Rivers went back to school after Charlee was born, getting her degree in nursing. She now works in the emergency room at MUSC Health-Lancaster.
“One of my patients from Lancaster last year was taken to Levine the day before we went up to give out toys,” Rivers said. “They were so happy when we showed up with toys. To see how much it means to someone makes it all worthwhile.”
Charlee was recently taken off the heart transplant list, Rivers said.
“We’re hoping she gets by without it until she’s 20,” Rivers said. “She’ll eventually have to have a new heart, though.”
Charlee only has half of a heart, a condition that is more common than you would think. According to the Atrium Health Foundation, 40,000 children are born with congenital heart disease every year.
Greg Olsen, a tight end for the Carolina Panthers, has a son the same age as Charlee, who suffers from the same condition. Olsen recently donated $2.5 million to the hospital for a new pediatric cardiac center, according to a report on the Panthers website.
During her time at the hospital, Charlee met a boy named Steven, who had to have a new heart. She still thinks of him as her “boyfriend” after three years. Though much of her time at the hospital was spent being poked and prodded by doctors, she remembers much of the good she saw there.
“I remember going to the top of the roof and eating cake,” Charlee said last week.
She also said it made her feel happy to receive gifts while she was there, and she hopes to pass that along to others experiencing the same thing.
“It makes them smile,” she said. “It makes them feel good.”