Surrounded by friends and co-workers at an office party on a warm, sunny day in June, Kerri received an unexpected phone call. It was the phone call that changed her life. She was going to be a grandmother sooner than expected.
As Kerri began preparations to travel to her daughter’s side, heaviness weighed on her heart. The fact her grandson was two months premature was enough to cause her to worry, but she just could not shake the feeling that there was more to come – something more was going to rock her world.
Upon finally reaching the hospital, Kerri walked into the neonatal intensive care unit where she found her daughter, Katelyn, and little baby Peyton. Exhausted, physically distraught, and emotionally drained, Katelyn collapsed into her mother’s arm like a little girl. Crying out in anguish, she so desperately wanted to hold her baby boy.
Kerri’s heart hurt for her daughter. As her eyes began to take in the scene around her, soon a deeper ache took over. There he was – tiny and helpless. His four pound body was laying there with tubes and needles stuck in or coming out of every part of him. It was too much to take. She just wanted to fix everything for them both. She wanted to make him all better, unhook him from the machines, hold him close, take away his pain, and hug away her daughter’s tears. She wanted to tell her that it would be alright and that she would get to hold her son, but the words would not flow from her lips.
It felt all too surreal, much like that of a plot in a movie with the storyline about a family’s life turned upside down by an unexpected tragedy and left hopeless. Only the cruel twist to the plot was that it was not some unknown family in the middle of the nightmare. It was her family – her daughter and grandson. There was no remote control to fast forward, rewind, or turn the movie off. It was real life, and it was heart-wrenching.
The doctors informed Kerri and Katelyn that Peyton had an extremely rare congenital heart condition known as Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. The left ventricle of his heart did not exist, so it was not able to pump blood to his brain or his body. In addition, they learned that Peyton’s case was considered extremely rare because of another problem where the right side of his heart had developed at half the size that it should have been. In a very gentle way, the doctors warned them that Peyton had little chance of survival and there were no promises regarding his future.
Kerri and her daughter knew that Peyton would have to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit for the unforeseeable future. The doctors said that they would do everything in their power to keep him alive – blood transfusions, medical tests, drug treatments, and heart bi-surgeries were all in the baby’s future if he survived.
Although the doctors prepared them for the worst, Kerri’s spirit became defiant. Something within her stirred, and in an amazing display of faith, she stood over her baby grandson and prayed. She asked the Lord to hold him even though they could not. She asked God to heal Peyton and make him whole. She begged God to give him the strength and will to choose life, though he was much too young to know what a precious gift it is. She thanked God for His mercy and grace, and she was sure He heard her prayers. She promised Him that she would do whatever He wanted her to do – if only He would heal Peyton’s wounds and dry up Katelyn’s tears. She knew that with Him, all of this was possible.
Along with the physical and emotional challenges that the family were already facing, financial challenges soon arose. They quickly found out that the expenses associated with staying near a child in Peyton’s condition were astronomical. Their insurance did not cover the hotel stays necessary to keep mommy near her baby. The costs for transportation, parking fees, and food soon began to mount. The climbing costs and the declining income left the family wondering where the provisions for their livelihood would come from.
As the Lord began to move in Kerri’s heart, she sat down at her computer and started to type. She poured out her heart in an email to friends and family. She spelled out the details onto the computer screen of her “Power House Peyton” and how he was struggling for his life. Her fingers continued to press the keys as she explained the financial burden and the need for prayers for her family. She was crying out for help . . . reaching for a lifeline.
Within minutes after sending her email plea, responses began to flow. As the word spread, even strangers started to reach out and offer a helping hand. A doctor who worked at the same hospital where Peyton was staying opened her spacious home to Katelyn and the family for as long as necessary and free of charge. Not only did she provide housing, she also provided free meals and parking for the family. It was a blessing that she generously bestowed, costing her little, but giving them so much.
The doorbell rang continuously as friends, family members, and co-workers offered everything from money to help cover gas and mortgage payments to house sitting and yard work. Still others brought gifts of encouragement for Peyton and the family. Even total strangers got involved by knitting prayer blankets with bows sewn on at the altar and decorating cards and signs with amazing words of well wishes. All of these small gestures of kindness and hope added up to one huge impact. All Peyton had to do was get better – God had taken care of everything else through his angels here on earth.
For three years, Peyton underwent multiple medical treatments and extended hospital stays. During those years, emails, phone calls, and gifts continued to come in from everywhere. Individuals met the family’s needs and never expected anything in return. It felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of Kerri’s shoulders, and she was forever grateful.
Even though she knew it was impossible, she wanted to somehow pay it all back – or perhaps, more accurately, pay it all forward. While visiting her father one day, her eyes came to rest on a 20 gallon water jug full of pennies. The idea crossed her mind as she asked herself the question, “What is he going to do with those pennies?” Donate them, of course!
As the Lord began to work in Kerri’s spirit, the penny jug concept started to take off. She first set an empty water jug labeled “Annual Penny Drive” at work. Then word began to spread. She wanted to bless someone unexpectedly during the Christmas season – just her small way of saying “thank you” and acknowledging her blessings in life. She soon had collected enough spare change from people to donate $443.11 to a young housewife whose husband had just died before that holiday season leaving her with two sons and no life insurance or income to fall back on.
The word continued to spread further with the use of the Internet, and Kerri was able to collect $774.46 the next year to give to an elderly woman in failing health that lived alone and had no one to care for her. Last year, the amount grew to $1213.97 in pennies that was donated to two women (mother and daughter). The mother struggled with diabetes and needed a kidney transplant and the daughter was going to give her mom her kidney until she came down with an infection and could not donate it. The small amount of money, donated by many people, served a mighty purpose in that family’s life. It let them know that they were loved and thought of by a God who will always provide for you.
As for Peyton, each day is a continued gift from God. He was the smallest baby in history to have those types of heart surgeries and survive. The family is not sure what the future holds or what the next steps will be in his heart journey – that will be determined as his body continues to grow and mature. Right now, he is a typical 5-year-old little boy, running and playing with the other kids, but he gets tired and out of breath. His lips turn blue and he requires lots of breaks when playing, but when he is rested he just gets back to playing again. Never far from his family’s memory are the days he spent in hospitals on the doorstep of Heaven. As Kerri watches her grandson play, she is always deeply grateful for the gift of life and ever conscious of how precious and short it can be.
When asked why Kerri chose Christmas as the time to bless others, she responded by saying, “Christmas at our house is every time Peyton comes to visit. Just watching him as he grows and learns is fascinating. His laugh is lifting, his smile is contagious, and his hugs let you know that Jesus is the breath in between every heartbeat of his. When he grabs my hand and says, ‘Let’s go Nana,’ I know that I am just a step away from seeing life through his little eyes in a way that will rejuvenate my spirit and overwhelm my soul. Everyday life should focus on the simple blessing of God – love. When Peyton was born I saw a side of love from others that I had never seen before. It wasn’t about the money or the gifts; it was about the small things. The emails, the phone calls, the text messages, the cards in the mail, and most importantly, the prayers were so overwhelming that it changed the way I walk in the world. It changed the way I look at people. It caused me to dig deeper within myself. I wanted to always remember that it was the small things in life, those little blessings sent straight from God that matter the most.”
Christmas is about celebrating the most important gift of love and sacrifice that was ever given to anyone and that gift can belong to you and me. It is about the birth of a Savior who loved us so much that He was born on this earth JUST so He could die for our sins. In His death and resurrection, we can now live free from what binds us as prisoners. What better time to demonstrate this love of others than in our giving here on earth? However, just as Kerri said, we need to remember that this gift of love is one that should last the whole year through.
Take the time to give the gifts that will last every day of this precious life we have. Life is so beautiful and it is so short. Grasp eternity now by offering yourself, your time, and your possessions to those who are in need. Pray for them, that they would know Jesus and experience the gifts of peace, joy, and hope that He offers to all who would believe in Him. Your actions and your gifts in this temporary home have everlasting significance – no matter how small they might seem to you now. Even pennies can come straight from Heaven.
To donate to the Annual Penny Drive, you can send your check to:
Redstone Federal Credit Union
Annual Penny Drive \ Kerri Bishop Reece
220 Wynn Drive
Huntsville, Al 35893