The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

Opinion

March 25, 2013

High roads with some bunny trails

GREENVILLE — The trails of life — marked by obstacles of many kinds — rarely intersect with bunny trails of blue sky songs and joyous egg hunts.

They draw closer, however, when a youngster sees few limits and imbues others along the trail with a “yes we can” attitude. That’s the essence of Haley Whatley, 18-year-old senior tennis star at Birdville High School in North Richland Hills.

For 13 years, she’s been the driving force to provide new stuffed animals for Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. They’ve collected some 29,000 animals — each one buoying spirits and providing blessed assurance that the young patients are not alone.…

*****

Her dream began at age 4, when her heart was touched by a TV appeal from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. She had numerous questions for her parents, Gary and Elizabeth Whatley; and upon their move to the Metroplex a year later, a tour of Cook Children’s Medical Center further amazed.

Haley was particularly taken by the “prayer bear room” provided by pastoral care efforts of churches and businesses.

Her mind was spinning, this soon-to-be kindergartener at Fort Worth Christian School. She was puzzled that the room had no bunnies — animals she viewed in tandem with Easter, her favorite holiday….

*****

Learning that patients received bears year-around — even at Easter — she asked if she could bring stuffed rabbits for the next Easter.

Her mom gulped, knowing that her 5-year-old’s mind was not completely wrapped around the enormity of her promise. After all, there were 186 beds, each with a patient, some with wavering hope.

The program was “gotten on with.” Friends at church and school responded, signs were posted and collection boxes set up. They missed their goal by miles. Instead of 186 stuffed animals, 1,400 — mostly bunnies — were donated! The annual project was born….

*****

Her parents’ eyes rolled — and hearts beat merrily — for her incurable optimism! (Ditto her 15-year-old brother, Shea.)

Elizabeth saw Haley making friends of strangers in grocery store lines. And when in first grade, she dialed the only American Airlines number stored on her mom’s cell phone (Gary is an AA pilot). She detailed the project to the operations manager.

After all, she felt certain that pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers and others deserved to share the joy of giving.

It worked. American Airlines is now a corporate sponsor, along with Six Flags Over Texas, Holt Caterpillar and Camp Gladiator. “Build a Bear Foundation” in St. Louis annually sends 100 already-built bears….

*****

By year three, Haley — the “bunny manager” — was speaking at schools and churches. Her message? “Don’t give ‘till it hurts, give ‘till it feels good!” Legal pad at hand, she scribbled notes for inclusion in manuals and training materials for future “Bunny Ambassadors.”

Seeing Bugs Bunny at Six Flags ignited her request to speak with management. Six Flags “bought in,” and now Bugs is present for the annual hospital “bunny drops.”

There’ve been other spin-offs, including a dinner featuring celebrity waiters. By happenstance, Haley met Bob Reynolds while playing in a Houston tennis tournament. Learning that he owns a few dozen Red Robin restaurants, she gave him the opportunity to host the event — providing food for 400 — so he could feel good, too. It raised $5,000 for the hospital….

*****

There’ll be voids at BHS, as well as at Colleyville First Baptist Church, come the autumn, when Haley will be a freshman — on a full tennis scholarship — at Erskine College in Due West, SC.

Her love for the project she founded, though, remains strong. She’s identified a successor to keep it rolling. Her name is Trudie Troublefield, a seventh grader at Westlake Academy.

Not many years ago, Haley was her babysitter….

*****

Haley’s spirit and love for others has been well-kindled. Her confidence in what can be done for others is strong.

This reminds me of a savior named Jesus Christ, often on record of his love for children to “come unto him.” His resurrection celebrated each Easter is a reminder of His light on our earthly trails.

No wonder Haley has won numerous honors, including Texas’ Youth Volunteer of the Year. No wonder others respond. No wonder Easter is her favorite holiday. And no wonder she eagerly shares the message — we are NOT alone….

Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Speaking inquiries/comments to: newbury@speakerdoc.com. Phone: 817-447-3872. Twitter: @donnewbury. Web site: www.speakerdoc.com.

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