Hundreds of people – from bikers in black leathers to preachers in black wingtips, from teens with styled hair to octogenarians with blue hair – packed Rock Hill’s First Baptist Church on Tuesday. The crowd was white and black and Asian and Hispanic, people who live in trailers and in big houses on the hill.
They all came for one reason – Emily.
Emily Elkins died last week at 16 after battling cancer for almost four years. But she squeezed every drop of life out of the little time she had.
“You have a child, you look out here and you see all these people, and you know that she was special,” said Paul Elkins. The big man – 6-foot-3, 300-plus pounds – shook with tears of sorrow for his daughter and the joy she brought to so many.
Emily died March 11, but the life she lived after her cancer diagnosis – and the 2012 theft of a donation jar to collect money to help her family pay for her treatments – brought this crowd together.
Emily forgave the man who stole the jar. Her grace, her love, saying how she would have given the career felon the money if he had just asked, led to three years of her giving to others even as cancer took her apart and eventually took her life.
A preacher whose day job is head of the Rock Hill National Guard motor pool stood at the altar of the church. This Chief Warrant Officer Steve Davis wore his biker leathers and the same desert combat boots he wore in Iraq and Afghanistan, in wars where people died and people killed.
Davis – who has fought to stay alive with the best of men – said no person in his life ever had more courage than Emily.
“I’ve been through two tours of combat, I’ve seen soldiers in foxholes,” Davis told the crowd, “and she, Emily, 16 years old, taught me to love more and live more than anybody.”
Because Emily kept nothing. She gave away all in her life, so that kids with missing limbs or with organs filled with poison, or with eyes gone, could smile.
Emily’s story of forgiveness in 2012 in The Herald brought her national recognition, and with that came donations. More stories, more donations. She gave it all away.
She gave away tens of thousands of dollars to buy toys for other kids fighting cancer at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. She organized toy drives with motorcycle clubs and with Winthrop University’s basketball teams, for whom she served as an honorary coach. She took donations and sponsored entire Angel Trees at Christmas. She even organized a toy benefit for disabled kids and children with special needs who had never talked or walked.
Also in the church were other cancer patients, masks over their mouths to keep out the germs that could kill them.
All came for Emily.
To get to that church Tuesday, dozens of motorcyclists, from the Dragonfly Sisters club she inspired to collect toys, to the Rolling Thunder group of mainly combat veterans, rode together. The group then led the procession to the cemetery, with Rock Hill Police Sgt. Tim Ayers leading the way.
Ayers, representing cops whose job is to serve the public, volunteered for the duty.
“This little girl helped so many people,” Ayers said. “I am proud to do this.”
The Rev. Ronal King spoke. He has spent the past 43 years running a group called Christians Feed the Hungry Ministries. On a shoestring of donations, King has fed the broke, the broken and the homeless. He has been honored by Congress and he has been without a dollar – sometimes in the same month.
King told all who came that he is nothing, nothing compared to Emily.
“In 43 years, I have met three truly great individuals,” King preached. “One of them was Emily Elkins.”
Emily reached out to King two years ago after her diagnosis, to tell him that she wanted to collect toys for homeless kids. She and volunteers collected truckloads of toys the past two Christmases and gave them away on cold, rainy days in a parking lot.
This past Christmas, Emily was so sick she could barely walk. Still, she was thinking of others.
“My wish is that every child have a Christmas.”
Emily created Emily’s Wish, a charity. She did so as she lay dying.
King, that tough old street preacher, spoke simply of what Emily Elkins’ too-short life was all about.
“Emily gave all she had.”
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org