PEGGY USSERY,The Dothan Eagle
ANDALUSIA, Ala. (AP) — Meredith McGlamory was a rambunctious little girl.
"A wild child," her mother, Janna McGlamory, said. "She was full of energy even in the middle of chemo."
Had she not lost her hair most people would not have known Meredith was sick. Just a few days before Christmas in 2001, Meredith didn't feel well. She had an ear infection but also complained of her tummy hurting whenever her mother would pick her up. During a visit to a local pediatrician for the ear infection, Janna had the doctor look at Meredith's abdomen.
The doctor's suspicions were not promising, and the family left that night for Children's Hospital in Birmingham where Meredith was diagnosed with Wilms tumor — a rare kidney cancer that occurs in children. Chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries didn't slow Meredith down. She had a three-month remission before the cancer returned.
Meredith died in September 2003. She was 5. Her story could have ended there, but it didn't.
"My philosophy is I wanted to give back part of what was given to me, given to my family — financially, emotionally and in every way possible," Janna said.
Within a year of Meredith's death, Janna and Russell McGlamory began discussing just how they could return the kindness shown to them by neighbors and friends in their small hometown of Andalusia. Both Janna and Russell — parents of 13-year-old John Reid, 5-year-old Mitch and 2-year-old twins Mallory and Natalie — grew up in the town of 8,800 residents. Their parents were natives of the Covington County community as were their grandparents. Even with those deep roots, the couple were amazed at the outpouring of support they received.
"Everything we've done, they've embraced us," Janna said.
With the help of volunteers, the couple created Meredith's Miracles. The nonprofit organization uses a unique approach to raise money for families who must travel out of the area due to a sick child. Volunteers dressed as characters go out for birthdays parties and even adult sing-a-grams.
They have Spider-Man, Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants and any number of Disney princesses. In all, Meredith's Miracles offers 33 different characters. Most of the costumes were purchased off eBay.
All profits go to cover the non medical expenses families incur when they must travel out of the area so they're child can receive treatment. The assistance is available due to a child's illness, injury in an accident or even premature babies.
"We really didn't know what to do," Janna said. "We didn't know what the need was."
Discussions with pediatricians in Andalusia revealed stories of families who couldn't even afford the gas money to take their children out of town for medical treatment whether it was to Children's Hospital or a facility in the region.
Along with the party rentals, the nonprofit holds several events during the year to raise money. This Saturday, the charity will hold its fourth Cookies with Characters event. The 33 characters will be available for children to interact with or get autographs.
Last year, the event drew 1,200 people. Cookies are donated by Chrissie Schubert's Homemade Treats and local businesses and individuals sponsor the cost to have the characters there. X-Treme Play Time in Enterprise has even donated an inflatable princess house. There is a stage show that lasts about 25 minutes before the characters take up their posts for the afternoon.
The charity has grown so much in popularity that they had to have tryouts last year for who would portray characters. The majority of volunteers are high school students. Family members have also donned costumes. John Reid, who turns 14 in May, has portrayed Mickey Mouse, Diego of Dora the Explorer, and Patrick of SpongeBob fame.
And for every character at the Saturday event, there will be another volunteer serving as a bodyguard since some costumes make it difficult to see. In all, the event will have more than 100 volunteers.
Meredith's Miracles operates within a 60-mile radius of Andalusia, although volunteers do hope to expand its services into the Dothan area or even Montgomery. But the credit for the nonprofit's success has been the people of Andalusia, Janna said.
"It goes back to Andalusia," she said. "It goes back to the people who live here."