ASHEBORO — Henleigh Gilmer loved her little play kitchen. It brought smiles to her face during a time of pain.
Henleigh was just 3 years old when she died March 7, 2022. She had been diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer, when she was 19 months old. What followed was nearly two years of treatment, primarily at Brenner Children’s Hospital, ending when the cancer which had been in remission came back and metastasized into her spine.
Her mother, Heather Gilmer, said Henleigh was diagnosed in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting things down. It was after she and her biological brother — Jameson, now 6 — had been taken in as foster children by Heather and her husband Cholly. Their biological son, Jackson, is now 12.
The Gilmers had been working to adopt Henleigh and Jameson when they learned of the cancer. When asked if they wanted to change their minds, Heather said, “We were already on path to adoption but I knew that I was her mama and she needed me so I was not going to walk away from her.”
They signed the final paperwork for adoption in June.
During a six-month period from August to October of 2021, the family took Henleigh to Atlanta for special radiation treatment. Then it was back to Brenner.
“I knew Janet,” said Heather of Janet Poole, who had carried out a toy drive at Brenner in 2021. “She brought toys to go in a toy box at Brenner. She knew how much toys meant for families.”
Those families with children being treated for cancer and other chronic illnesses often struggled financially since one or both parents would have to take time off from their jobs to be with their sick kids.
Adding to the Gilmers’ problems was Cholly being on dialysis. Then, six weeks after Henleigh died, he received a kidney transplant at Atrium Wake Forest Baptist, where Brenner is located.
Heather is a teacher at Teachey Elementary School and was able to work online from Henleigh’s hospital room. She acted as a virtual teacher for an entire year.
In January 2022, Henleigh began to experience severe pain. A C-T scan found nothing but Heather was insistent that the medical staff do more. They scheduled Henleigh for an MRI and found the cancer had grown and extended into her spine.
The doctors told the Gilmers there was nothing else they could do except try to make Henleigh comfortable. Heather and Cholly made the difficult decision to take Henleigh home. Her last days were spent at the Randolph Hospice House.
“She was interactive their first couple of days, being on morphine,” Heather said. “She wanted to play and loved her little play kitchen. She asked me for a hot dog and chocolate milk. The last three days she was sleeping a lot. I was in the room with her when she passed away. I was afraid for her to be alone.”
Poole said that several years ago her daughter, Haley, had to decide what her high school senior project would be. She chose children with cancer and worked out an agreement with Brenner Children’s Hospital to spend time with the patients there.
While at Brenner, Haley led a small toy drive for the children. She found that it was important to get those items for kids, Poole said.
Meanwhile, Poole would watch families come and go with their children at Brenner. “It broke my heart. God laid it on my heart to start a Brenner Toy Drive.”
She received support from Art Martinez, the president at her job with Insurance Associates of the Triad. Martinez’s daughter, Gabi, had had leukemia.
Poole also persuaded her church, Balfour Baptist, to support the toy drive and collect articles at the church. She called it a “modern-day fish and loaves day,” referring to the story of Jesus feeding the multitude.
“People thought it wouldn’t happen,” she said. “I just hoped to get a couple of truckloads of toys.”
The toy drive was a success and Poole took them to Brenner to disperse among the children.
“Then people would ask me, ‘When’s the next toy drive?’ I said, ‘In God’s time.’”
Poole firmly believes that God’s time is now, with the Brenner Children’s Toy Drive to be in honor of Henleigh. It will be held Saturday, May 20, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Balfour Baptist Church, 1712 N. Fayetteville St., Asheboro.
Items must be new toys since used toys could make the children sick. Suggested toys include Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars, Princess and superhero figures, small musical instruments, baby dolls, small kitchen sets, coloring books/crayons, little dinosaurs/animals, or gift cards from retailers.
No stuffed animals or PlayDough can be accepted.
Those wishing to give monetary donations should make out checks to Brenner Children’s Cancer Fund and send them to Balfour Baptist Church. You can also go to BalfourChurch.com to donate online.
“We are praying that this toy drive will be exactly what God wants it to be for this day and time,” Poole said. “The day will be about honoring the life of Henleigh and all the children fighting cancer, and about Jesus. Our motto is ‘Be the light for the children.’
“We want to bring a ray of sunshine during a dark time.”