The worst day of Jennifer Anderson’s life came in the winter of 2012, when her daughter, Lily, succumbed to a prolonged battle with cancer at the age of 11.
From the moment that her daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2009 to the very end, Anderson said that the youngster never gave up hope, never stopped fighting.
But after that unimaginable loss on Dec. 15, 2012, the Anderson family didn’t allow Lily’s fire to die.
Over the past six years, Anderson’s family, including husband Joey and daughter Audrey, 11, have honored the memory of their bright, happy child who refused to quit fighting and brightened the world around her like glitter by bringing hope and normalcy to the lives of countless children who spend the holidays in a hospital bed.
“She always lived a yes life,” Anderson said.
“She was so tiny and really shiny, and she was all over the place and everybody that got to meet her,” she said. “You didn’t forget that she was in your presence.”
Anderson said that the year of sadness and tragedy after they lost Lily, a friend came to her and suggested that they take the day that Lily died and turn it into a positive day, giving back to the community at Children’s Health Care of Atlanta (CHOA) that her daughter loved so much.
“At first I said no, there is nothing good about this day,” Anderson said. “But I didn’t want to be sad, because she wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad … so we decided Dec. 15 was going to be the toy drive.”
That first toy drive they held was small and intimate, she said, but over the years it has become a charity staple for the Forsyth County and CHOA communities.
“It’s just grown, grown, grown,” she said.
Last year, Lily’s 5th Annual Night of Glitter and Gifts collected 1,111 toys, games, bikes and other gifts for CHOA, filling several box trucks, destined to reach countless children over the holidays.
According to Anderson, that total itself was a sign that her daughter was smiling down at them, happy at the work they were doing.
“Lily’s special number was 11 … she was 11 years old when we lost her and she just loved the number 11,” she said. “So when they counted all the toys, they told us that there were 1,111 toys. You just can’t make that up.”
Anderson said that every one of those 1,111 toys were given a ‘Lily’s Toys’ sticker, letting their recipients know that they were donated in Lily’s memory and further preserving her legacy.
She said that every so often she will get a photo or letter from a family that received one of Lily’s toys, thanking her and her family for what they do.
Even before they began Lily’s Annual Night of Glitter and Gifts, the Anderson family was part of another charity event, Lily’s Run, which was started by the Kingdom Kids Foundation, to help their family just weeks after Lily was diagnosed cancer.
“They were trying to help us as much as they could,” she said. “They put together the first Lily’s Run within three weeks and it was — I mean just thousands of people — who came out for our family, to help us.”
Lily was the tiny champion and mascot of the race, Anderson said, attending even at the height of her sickness to see the people that supported her. At Lily’s final race in 2012, Anderson said they made a promise to keep it going after she was gone.
“She said, ‘You know, even though I’m not going to be here, I want you to continue this. I want you to keep doing Lily’s Run,”’ Anderson said.
Like Lily’s Annual Night of Glitter and Gifts, Anderson said that Lily’s Run has grown tremendously over the last 10 years. The most recent event in October raised $95,000 to grant the wishes of sick and hospitalized children.
She said that those wishes might be as simple as a new computer or as elaborate as a trip to Hawaii, but the important part is that the child and family get a break from hospitals and the routines of being sick, whether it be for a day or a week.
“It helps you to get through the next day,” she said. “It comes back to normalcy, so you can have a life outside of [the hospital] and go do something and say, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re going to go to Disneyland, we’re going to go to the mountains.’ … You don’t have to think about that place that you have to go back to.”
Anderson said that anyone who is looking to participate in this year’s Lily’s Annual Night of Glitter and Gifts can come to the Vickery Village Courtyard at 5755 South Vickery St., in Cumming from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 15.
Lily’s Run is held each year on the second Sunday in October.
They ask donors to bring unwrapped toys, gift cards or other gifts, but can’t accept stuffed animals or any toys with glitter.
For the future, Anderson said that they will continue to spread Lily’s memory in the community and do as much to help sick and hospitalized children as they can, for as long as they can.
“All over Forsyth County I see Lily’s Run shirts. I see Glitter and Gift toy stickers. So I feel like we’re doing our job to carry on her legacy as a family,” she said. “We’ll just see how long we can keep doing it, but people can count on December the 15th as being a day of joy instead of a day of sadness for the Andersons.”