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Children's lives worth celebrating this season

Celebrating the lives of children. That's what the Festival of Trees is all about. That's all it's ever been about.

In 1928, having lost all four of his siblings to childhood diseases, Dr. Thomas Egleston built a hospital and dedicated it to his mother, Henrietta Egleston. He won worldwide recognition for his efforts to cure childhood diseases.

In 1998, Egleston and Scottish Rite children's hospitals merged and formed Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, which continues Dr. Egleston's crusade to save children's lives.

The Festival of Trees, CHOA's biggest and most celebrated fundraiser, has raised more than $15 million over the past 30 years. The 2007 Festival of Trees at the Atlanta History Center will feature more than 60 designer trees and wreaths, an interactive model train, an international village and a holiday gift shop.

But this year, CHOA will celebrate children's lives in a bigger and better way than ever before. Simon Malls will display more than 40 honorary trees at each of its seven metro Atlanta locations, including Gwinnett Place, Discover Mills and the Mall of Georgia, extending a festival favorite free of charge to all holiday shoppers.

Each tree is designed by a local individual or organization in honor of a current of former CHOA patient, several of whom live in Gwinnett County.

Sami Lyew, a six-time Peachtree Road Race runner, was diagnosed with leukemia last February at age 15. She was immediately admitted to the Aflac Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service of CHOA.

Sami went home eight days later on daily chemotherapy treatments but still lettered in academics at Brookwood High School and continued dancing at Brookwood and for Praise-in-Motion, a Christian dance company. She also stays active in Lilburn Christian's Youth and Children's Ministry. Thanks to CHOA, Sami celebrates a positive prognosis and plans to participate in the group's VolunTEEN program during the summer.

In 2004, 16-year-old Nikki Mataluni of Lawrenceville was diagnosed with a severe form of anemia. She endured many difficult and unsuccessful treatments at CHOA. In 2005, Nikki had a bone and marrow transplant. Inspired by the care and dedication of the CHOA staff, she plans to become a child life specialist.

At age 4, Alan Sims' cholesterol had reached an astronomical level. What were thought to be ant bites on his knees turned out to be cholesterol deposits. A year later, Alan was diagnosed with leukemia. After treatment at CHOA, Alan is in remission, and his cholesterol has been cut in half. Now a first-grader, he has enough energy to serve as the honorary chairperson for Gwin Oaks Elementary School's Relay for Life team.

Starting today, you can view the special trees celebrating these three young people's lives along with many others at the Mall of Georgia. The trees will be on display until next Sunday, when they will be delivered to the honorees' homes.

But for Sami, Nikki, Alan and their families, the celebration won't stop there.

A nonprofit organization, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta benefits from the financial and volunteer support of the community. To donate, call 404-785-GIVE or visit www.choa.org/give.

Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at susanlarson4@yahoo.com.