SUWANEE - In the last months of her tragically short life, Taylor Brooks epitomized courage, grace, kindness and generosity far beyond what would be expected of a 14-year-old girl. She began a legacy of hope and compassion that, thanks to her family and others, will continue.
Until July 2007, Taylor was a typical teenager who played the guitar, held a first-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do and was looking forward to beginning high school at Collins Hill High School in Suwanee.
In the summer of 2007, six days before she turned 14, Taylor was diagnosed with stage IV desmoplastic small round cell tumor cancer. This rare cancer - only about three cases a year are diagnosed, and usually in boys - has an 80 percent fatality rate. That same day, doctors began aggressive chemotherapy treatments to attack the cancer that had invaded Taylor's body.
"Last year, our family had the most amazing Thanksgiving. There were four generations of our family together, and it was just wonderful," said Melissa Brooks, Taylor's mom.
When Taylor went back to the AFLAC Cancer Center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta hospital after Thanksgiving for a chemotherapy treatment, she asked one of her favorite nurses how her Thanksgiving was and how many rooms in the inpatient center were occupied during the holiday. The nurse replied that every room had been full - all 16 of them.
"Taylor realized then that while she was having such a great holiday, there were 16 children and their families who didn't have a huge family feast. She realized that these children wouldn't be going to see the Christmas lights at Lake Lanier, or singing with the Collins Hill high school chorus, or going shopping with their friends," Brooks said.
So Taylor decided to do something about it. She decided a holiday party, complete with treats and presents for patients and their parents, was just what the doctor ordered.
"She wanted to help these children and their families forget, even if just for a little while, where they were and why," Brooks said. The first party, held in December, was a huge hit. Donations from corporate and private sponsors, including Chick-fil-A and the famous cow, poured in.
In April, just eight months after Taylor's diagnosis, she passed away with her family by her side. "She taught so many people a lot of lessons about grace and courage," Brooks said of her youngest daughter.
Taylor's family decided to continue her legacy of kindness and generosity, establishing the Taylor Brooks Foundation and expanding the reach to both Scottish Rite and Egleston hospitals of Children's Healthcare.
"Every Sunday, we deliver doughnuts to the hospital. We bring gift bags for the children on holidays, and on Mother's Day we bring gifts for moms," Brooks said.
Donations made to the Taylor Brooks Foundation have made these kindnesses possible, as well as providing a means to supply families with comfort kits that include toiletries, a roll of quarters, coloring books, a journal and other items so vitally important to families when a child is first diagnosed with cancer.
The second annual Taylor Brooks holiday party is scheduled for Dec. 11. Instead of hosting 16 children and their families, the Foundation will throw a party for 64 children, all patients at AFLAC Cancer Centers at Scottish Rite and Egleston, as well as for young bone marrow transplant patients at Egleston.
"We called Collins Hill High School for their help, and they've been great," Brooks said.
Jessica Sedor, the school's volunteer adviser, coordinated efforts to place "Toys for Taylor's Dream" fliers around the school. Students have been excited to bring toys and items for gift bags and care kits to Sedor's office throughout the year, and especially this time of year.
Cure Childhood Cancer, an organization dedicated to education and raising funds for childhood cancer research, has also partnered with the Taylor Brooks Foundation.
"We are so grateful to them. Taylor passed away in April, and Children's has a policy that Jeff and I can't be (volunteering at the hospitals) for about a year. There are still children there that were there when Taylor was being treated, and it's just a good idea to give it time before we become so involved with families again," Brooks said.
Cure Childhood Cancer volunteers have made sure the doughnut and gift bag deliveries are made, and they will be there Dec. 11 for the party.
"On that night, Cure Childhood Cancer will provide the dinner, and the gifts and party will be from the Taylor Brooks Foundation," Brooks added.
The scope of Taylor's Foundation has widened to include fundraising for childhood cancer research.
"Amazingly, there's not nearly enough. A very small percentage of all funds raised for cancer research goes to childhood cancers," said Brooks.
Donations made to the Foundation have also gone to provide widescreen televisions in family waiting areas, laptops for patients and families, and other items that help ease the pain and fear of families and their children.
Sedor recalls Taylor's enthusiasm and passion for the children at the AFLAC Cancer Centers.
"She took the initiative and made it happen really by herself. We've helped in whatever way we could, but Taylor did this. This was her dream for these children."
Toy and gift bag donations for the Taylor Brooks Foundation can be made through the volunteer office at Collins Hill High School. For more information about how to donate toys in time for the Dec. 11 party, e-mail email@example.com, or take donations to Collins Hill High School by Monday.
For more information about the Taylor Brooks Foundation, visit www.taylorbrooksfoundation.org.