Even the darkest of days are followed by sunlight. One local family suffered a tragedy and is using it as fuel to brighten the lives of children in need. Rachel’s Ray of Hope is helping make sure every underprivileged kid in Fayette County will be ready to start the school year right, but the charity’s story is so much deeper.
On April 11, 2013, Rachel Cannella’s life was cut short unexpectedly. Left to try and pick up the pieces, her mother, Keri Cannella-Moye, knew she wanted to honor her daughter’s memory.
“It was such a unique and tragic accident that my mind instantly was working,” said Keri. “We were still sitting in the hospital when they said she’s brain dead. I remember looking at everyone and saying something good is going to come out of this. Period.”
From that awful day grew a lifeline that has touched so many. Rachel was an organ donor, her major organs going to five patients. Beyond that, she also gave her bones and skin. In all, more than 30 people benefitted. It has brought some comfort to know that Rachel’s spirit lives on in others.
“She was supposed to go off to college last fall,” said Keri. “As hard as it was, then I got a picture of her liver recipient, and he was going off to college, so I know a little part of her is in college. It’s been helpful.”
Rachel’s love reached even farther than her physical body. She had bipolar disorder and felt the kindness from many through her struggles. In return, Rachel opened up her heart to others in need. Keri started the charity because she knew her daughter would have found some way to touch as many lives as possible. She is following in the footsteps that her daughter would have walked.
“She was such a giving person. I’m sure some of that had to do with what she had to go through,” remembered Keri. “I told her ‘I will walk your footsteps’ because she was going to do something so great, so I felt the obligation to just do something to help.
“She was a people person. I think that’s why it affects me. I felt like the world could not lose somebody like that.,” Keri said. “If there was someone in a room who looked unhappy, she would gravitate towards that person. She didn’t want anyone feeling left out. To watch the effect that she had on individuals who really needed her was so heartwarming.”
From the heartbreak grew Rachel’s Ray of Hope. The Ray of Hope Clothing Closet was started with the goal of providing clothing for students from low-income families. Students that qualify, either by receiving reduced-cost or free lunches or by referrals, are supplied with a school wardrobe and a backpack with supplies. Families shop one at a time by appointment to ensure it is private.
“When the social workers came to me, I guess I’m either stupid or stubborn, but I said if this is a need in Fayette County, then we’ll do it,” said Keri. “I didn’t think it would be anything like this. At first, I’m sure it was for my own personal healing.
“It started with me wanting to do something, but this has become such a community organization now. It’s way beyond what I can do.”
The group is all volunteer-driven, with roughly two dozen volunteers in total. It’s neighbors helping neighbors in need, and the need is greater than many might think.
“Part of the problem is the perception. The need is smaller than in surrounding counties, but it is larger than most think, so the funds aren’t there,” said Keri, noting that last year 146 kids came in and that more than that have already made reservations this year before back-to-school shopping has even started.
One of the most important events that has been launched at the clothing closet was their first Prom Dress Boutique held in the spring. With the help of generous donations from a number of local businesses, they were able to provide prom dresses, shoes, and jewelry at no cost. They set out to make every girl feel like a princess, and that’s what they did.
Keri’s sister, Kim, was especially touched by one girl who came to the event.
“She was really tall, and she knew just what she wanted. My heart just dropped, and I thought please let us have something for her,” Kim remembered. “She found one right on the rack. It fit her perfectly. She kept it on and walked around for 20 minutes saying, ‘This is it, this is it.’ It was just meant to be.
“That transformed me forever,” said Kim. “I’m a school teacher, so we touch children everyday, but this has been so different.”
To gather funds to get ready for the back-to-school rush, there will be a special Rachel’s Ray of Hope Fashion Show this Saturday at Sara Harp Minter Elementary School. The models will be showing off clothes off the very shelves where kids will soon be shopping. For just $20, you get a night of fun including the fashion show, dinner, and a silent auction, with all proceeds going to support providing free school clothes and supplies for needy residents in Fayette County. They are also accepting clothing donations at the event for anyone who wants to donate new or gently-used clothing. All donations are tax-deductible.
Longterm, the vision is clear.
“I will know that we have reached our goal when every student who is truly in a low-income, disadvantaged family knows about us, can make an appointment, and we don’t have to turn anyone away. That’s when I’ll know that we’re where we need to be,” said Keri, adding that eventually they would like to be able to reach out to surrounding counties.
To get there, they will need even more help from the community. Volunteers are needed to help at the clothes closet and to set up clothing drives around town. Donations of clothes and school supplies are always a must. On top of that, monetary donations are a big need to not only purchase new underwear, socks, and supplies, but to help pay rent and keep the lights on.
All of the hard work and sacrifice has been more than fulfilling. When they see a family come in that was skeptical and embarrassed become transformed, they truly feel the love and warmth of Rachel spreading.
“By the time they leave, the kids are jumping up and down and hugging you walking out in their brand new clothes, and the parents are thanking you,” said Kim.
As soon as Saturday’s fashion show wraps up, it will be time to kick into high gear. Back-to-school shopping starts the following day. Making a difference doesn’t take a day off.
For more information on how to get involved, visit [btn type=”default or primary or success or info or warning or danger or link” link=”www.RachelsRayOfHope.org”]www.RachelsRayOfHope.org[/btn].