Andrew Dys

Rock Hill teen cancer victim Emily Elkins hoped to open a homeless shelter – on Saturday her wish comes true

Before she died from cancer at 16 in March 2015, Emily Elkins wanted more than anything to open a homeless shelter.

Emily had spent the last three years of her life sick, but still donated thousands of dollars worth of clothes and more to the homeless in Rock Hill and York County after she became a celebrity when a felon stole her cancer donation jar.

Her life, before death, was helping the homeless – especially kids.

Her wish is about to come true.

Emily’s House, a shelter for homeless families and children, will hold an open house Saturday. By next week it could house its first family.

“We are so close – Emily wanted this more than anything,” said Emily’s father, Paul Elkins. “She gave and gave in her life. Now, she will give back even after her life.”

‘Big Paul’ Elkins, a big man with a bigger heart, still cries when he talks about his daughter. Emily, says Big Paul, showed the rest of us in this world what it means to be a friend and neighbor.

At this weekend’s open house fundraiser, T-shirts – done in tie-dye fashion that Emily loved – will be for sale. The T-shirts include the words: “Love thy neighbor as thy selfie.”

Like all teens, Emily loved selfies; but she loved others even more.

Volunteers have spent more than a year since Emily’s death fixing up a house at 314 Hasty St. in Rock Hill that belonged to the family of Rev. Jonathan Pannell, pastor at Rock Hill’s Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene. The family donated the building to kick-start the shelter. The church has taken on the shelter as one of its main ministries.

Emily inspired a whole church as she inspired Rock Hill and even America.

Emily’s journey to help others lasted all her short life. She was a volunteer and cheerleader when at age 13 she was diagnosed with cancer. In 2012, her father put a donation jar in a Rock Hill store to help with expenses. A thief stole it. The Herald first reported the theft, then Emily’s story exploded onto the American scene.

She showed grace by giving away everything that she received from as far away as California and Florida.

She received countless donations and gave them all away to the homeless and other charities. She raised money and collected clothes and blankets and Christmas toys through charity drives. But she was always concerned most, cried the most, for children who had no home such as she had.

So she started planning the shelter, but the cancer returned and eventually took her life.

Her legacy will remain there at the Emily’s House shelter.

Paul Elkins, along with Emily’s mother and stepfather, Annie and Ray Brakefield, joined with Pannell and others to form a nonprofit foundation to operate the shelter. Dozens of volunteers ripped out old burned wood – the house was damaged inside years ago in a fire – and replaced walls and floors and more. Jim Brown Signs donated a sign for the front of the building that was designed by a tattoo artist using Emily’s nickname – Honeybee.

Hospitality Heating & Air donated tens of thousands of dollars in materials and supplies and labor from flooring to a new roof – including a new HVAC unit.

By the beginning of next week, enough will be done to have a family stay at the shelter. The goal is having one family at a time, with hopes of several buildings in the next few years to serve many families. Church officials do the intake for clients.

“All of the people who have helped us, who have given so much to make this happen – we have all become a family in Emily’s name,” said Pannell the pastor.

But as her parents and volunteers say, they need the help of others. Donations are always accepted to help finish work and run the shelter.

An open house is set for Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., so people can come and look at, and walk through, Emily’s dream that came true.

Want to help?

Emily’s House homeless shelter open house is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the shelter, 314 Hasty St., Rock Hill. There will be free hot dogs and soft drinks, and fundraiser T-shirts for sale for $15.

To donate to Emily’s House, call Emmanuel Church of the Nazarene at 803-328-2134; visit; or go to any Family Trust credit union branch.