12/21/04 — Parents bring gifts to hospital where daughter died

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Parents bring gifts to hospital where daughter died

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 21, 2004 2:00 PM

CHAPEL HILL -- While many families get ready for Christmas, Joe and Gena Hackett spent Monday returning to the hospital where, two weeks ago, their 6-year-old daughter died.

"This is the first time we've been back," Mrs. Hackett said while standing outside the entrance of UNC Children's Hospital.

The purpose of the pilgrimage was to deliver toys for children hospitalized during the holidays. After Avery's death on Dec. 8 following complications from brain surgery, her parents had requested donations of stuffed animals instead of flowers.

The toys would be taken to the hospital where Avery died, to cheer up other children in the hospital.

The public responded. An avalanche of toys poured in, some brought to the funeral at the church, others to the funeral home, and still more were left anonymously on the Hacketts' doorstep.

"It was overwhelming," Mrs. Hackett said. "We had so many friends come out and folks we don't even know donated stuffed animals."

By the time they were gathered in one place, the count totaled 1,250 stuffed animals. The Hacketts said they spent two days sorting and putting them into large plastic bags donated for the cause by Wal-Mart and Target. Wilber's Restaurant loaned a van to transport them.

Hackett said 1,000 of the toys would be distributed at the hospital, with the remainder given to local police and battered women's shelters for children who need comforting.

On Monday morning, two vans traveled to Chapel Hill. The Hacketts were joined by Gena's brother Gene Lupton; nephew Phillip Bunn; Kim McArthur, one of Mrs. Hackett's fellow teachers at Goldsboro High School; long-time family friend Seanna Whitfield; Brittany Sasser, who attends Whitley Church with the Hacketts; and a reporter from the News-Argus.

The entourage was greeted by several hospital personnel. It took three large metal cribs and a small cart to transport all the toys.

Ginna Barber, a recreational therapist at the hospital, recalled meeting the Hacketts the weekend before Avery's surgery. It is her job to prepare children for procedures and explain what will take place.

She said she immediately found common ground with the family. Originally from Goldsboro, she had also attended Meadow Lane Elementary School, where Avery was a first-grader.

"I was very blessed to have met Avery," she said. "She touched my life. Her spirit and her brightness is a testament to her family."

She called the Hacketts' donation "a phenomenal thing."

She said the toys will be especially appreciated by children in the hospital during the holidays. But the giving will continue throughout the year and throughout the hospital.

"We'll also use some in the emergency room," she said, "as well as our clinic, for children in psychiatry and different areas of the hospital."

After completing the delivery, the group gathered in a circle and the hospital chaplain offered a prayer of blessing for the gifts and the family. Mrs. Hackett was given the stuffed monkey Mrs. Barber had used in explaining to Avery about her operation. The hospital also presented the family with a memory book containing Avery's hand prints and footprints as well as messages from those who cared for her during her stay.

Hackett expressed his gratitude to the hospital staff.

"I just want to say thank you for making our stay here as comfortable as possible, as pleasant as possible," he said.

He also credited his hometown with making the family's wish a reality.

"Our community, Wayne County, is a family," he said.

Hackett said he believes the ripple effects of his daughter's young life will be felt for some time. Stuffed animals continue to pour in, he said, with more expected from as far away as Idaho and California.

He also learned that upon hearing about the Hacketts' efforts, a company had donated 125 bears to the University of Kentucky Medical School in Avery's name.

And then there are those whose lives were physically changed by the family's decision to donate Avery's organs. Hackett said one kidney went to a father of two in Washington, D.C., another kidney went elsewhere, her liver to a patient at UNC hospital, and two people in Ohio regained their sight after receiving Avery's eyes.

"What would be awesome is if this time next year, we could all get together and meet," he said of the recipients.

The Hacketts say they have been touched by the outpouring of support from many directions, which her father says is a testament to how many lives Avery touched in the short time she lived.

"She loved life," Hackett said. "She always had a hug for everybody."

"Avery would think this was great," Mrs. Hackett said after the donations were dropped off. "She'd be in the middle of all of it.

"We wanted to bring happiness like she did."