Wide Open Hearts
by Dean Stegall
Living in a small town can be one of life's greatest blessings. Not only are you friends with almost everyone, but also the support that comes with that friendship is humbling, especially when tragedy strikes.
My granddaughter Ryleigh Meree Stegall was a happy, beautiful, normal three-year-old. She had long, brown hair that she loved to wear in pigtails and an infectious smile that would melt your heart. In June 2000, while she and her seven-year-old sister Keerstin were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their baby brother Chandler, Ryleigh was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, which turned the Stegall world as we knew it, upside down. Our lives were shattered. The necessary chemotherapy robbed Ryleigh of her beautiful hair. However, the smile was still as infectious as ever.
As news of Ryleigh's devastating illness traveled countywide, the compassion and kindness were overwhelming. From the day Ryleigh was diagnosed until the day she died on September 14, 2007, the outpouring of love, concern, and generosity was monumental. During the seven-year battle with her illness, our community continued to rally around her. Acts of kindness were not only bestowed on Ryleigh, but also on her big sister Keerstin and baby brother Chandler. Innumberable cards were received for Ryleigh and her siblings. Gifts were sent to Ryleigh from thoughtful friends who never forgot to enclose extra surprises for Keerstin and Chandler. Our community supported countless prayer services. Benefits were held to help defray the expense of the many two hour trips to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital for doctor visits, chemotherapy and two bone marrow transplants; and of course automatics stops at Ryleigh's favorite place, McDonald's.
On one occasion I was shopping at the local grocery store and a friend inquired about Ryleigh and her condition. During our conversation he reached in his pocket and handed me a $100 dollar bill. To me, it seemed as if he had been carrying that money in his pocket just waiting for the opportunity to express his compassion. I later learned this friend had also given the same amount to other family members. Ryleigh was able to enroll in kindergarten at Waynesboro Elementary School in the fall of 2002. She loved her school, her friends, and her teacher.
By March 2003, Ryleigh had relapsed. Her school days at WES had ended, but the love the students had for Ryleigh continued to grow. I became her teacher for the next four years and we often visited the school so she could attend parties or go with her class on field trips. Ryleigh was never forgotten. After her relapse, plans were made to fly to M D Anderson Hospital for experimental chemotherapy and radiation. Ryleigh and her parents stopped by our house as they were leaving town to catch their early flight. Her former kindergarten teacher also arrived with a bag of supplies she thought Ryleigh might need. Priceless!
Shortly after Ryleigh's death, I approached the Wayne County Director of Schools asking permission to organize a walk to remember Ryleigh and involve the schools in the county. I wanted her to be remembered as a normal kid with a smile that could light up a room. It took onlly a moment for his positive reply. Ryleigh's love for school and her friends lives on through Ryleigh's Walk each November. T-shirts were sold and donations were received. This was the beginning of many successful events. Friends and neighbors also participate each year to show their continuous love, respect, and support.
Ryleigh and the entire Stegall Family felt the overpowering love and concern from every part of our large county every day during Ryleigh's illness. The enduring connection we felt inspired our decision to create a 501 (c) 3 foundation to give something back to the community who had given so much to our family. In the fall of 2007, the "Butterfly Foundation" was established to provide assistance to families who have children with life-threatening or life altering illnesses. Today we continue to have an all-volunteer board of directors who work tirelessly to support the assistance we provide families with sick children. Families in Wayne County, Lawrence County, Perry County, Lewis County, and Hardin County are all benefactors of the efforts of this amazing foundation. As of April 15, 2019, we have distributed more than $630,000 to more than 275 families in this area. The community continues to show their love. Why call it the Butterfly Foundation? Because Ryleigh loved butterflies and we loved Ryleigh.