Sixteen-year-old Emily Elkins has been fighting cancer for more than three years, but somehow – finding strength in such a young body that is both friend and enemy – she remains thankful.
Emily became something of a national figure in the summer of 2012, when The Herald reported how a thief had stolen a donation jar that Emily’s family was using to collect a few dollars to help pay for her treatment.
From the first day, Emily – then stuck in a hospital – said that if the guy needed the money so much, she would have given it all to him.
Sick, fighting to survive, Emily forgave that thief, because she had life to grab on to.
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“I am here,” Emily said. “I have my family. I have so much to be thankful for. I have more than so many have.”
Incredibly, despite the return of the cancer to her lungs this year after months in remission, Emily continues to try to find a way for kids who have less than she does to find a smile during the holidays. Since she became ill, Emily has taken donations sent to her each Christmas and given them all away to needy kids.
Just about the only donation Emily ever kept was a limo ride and tickets to see Justin Bieber in concert in January 2013.
This week, Winthrop University’s basketball teams will help her help even more kids.
Anyone who brings a new unwrapped toy to Monday’s men’s game and Tuesday’s women’s game will be admitted for free.
“I just want to help kids have something,” Emily said. “All I ever wanted to do since this started is help people who need help.”
Then on Dec. 6, Emily again will host a motorcycle ride to collect toys and donations for the needy. This year, she chose to help children – and the brothers and sisters of children – who are clients of the York County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs.
“We want to make sure that every one of those special kids gets great things for Christmas,” said Annie Brakefield, Emily’s mother. “Even at times when Emily has been hospitalized, all she ever wanted to do was help other kids. She is committed to helping.”
The first year she was sick, when donations following the publicity from the stolen jar poured in, Emily bought clothes and blankets and gifts for York County’s homeless. She gave thousands of dollars in donations and collected hundreds of toys for other children receiving treatment at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, where she herself was a patient. She even took over an entire Angel Tree’s worth of gifts at a local convenience store.
Almost all of her gifts, her thanks to others, have gone to people, many of them children, she has never met.
“Emily has showed every one of us what it means to be a giver and do all you can for others,” said her father, Paul Elkins. “She inspires people. Even me. She’s my daughter, but man, this is some little girl.”
Last year, Emily added toys for kids and vowed to never stop.
“People have been generous to me, and I just think it is right to be generous,” Emily said. “There is never enough love in the world. When you have the chance, you give some love to somebody who might need a little bit.”
Back in February, Emily was an honorary assistant coach for the Winthrop women’s basketball team after coach Kevin Cook read in The Herald on Christmas 2013 about her heroic fight to survive and her gifts to others. Emily and Winthrop vowed to make that game just the beginning.
So with basketball season now in full swing – and Christmas looming for so many kids who barely get enough to eat, let alone toys at Christmas – Emily is geared up to help.
And if her health allows, and the coach gives the thumbs-up, Emily will be happy to again sit on the bench with the team.
“It was really awesome last time,” she said.
But for Emily, caring for others always comes hand-in-hand with the question of whether she will be around for the next holiday or be able to go to ballgames. Cancer-free when she last coached in February, Emily received the bad news in the spring that the cancer was back.
This time, it was her lungs.
She can’t go to school, so a teacher comes to her home. She can’t be a cheerleader or run track or do other things she once hoped to do and still hopes to do. She’s had to endure more chemotherapy and radiation.
“We are hoping right now that the next checkup will show that she is cancer-free again,” her mom said.
So for Emily Elkins, Thanksgiving means more than food and family – even though she is helping with the cooking and making the house ready for a crowd.
Thanksgiving means doctors and prayers and fighting.
And hopefully by next week, when the Winthrop basketball teams play at home again, Thanksgiving will mean that Emily will again walk onto the court, with barrels of toys for kids.
She will show what being thankful and generous is all about, and wave to the crowd as it cheers for a girl whose every action for others is a slam dunk.