Children dressed in bright orange with butterfly wings bouncing behind them pranced down the runway with pride. Best friends followed while sporting shirts decked in rhinestones spelling out “Chanell Wright Save a Child Foundation.” They were excited to share the memory of their friend Chanell – knowing the fashion show would have put a smile on her face.
“She was my little shopaholic,” her mom Chiquita Wright said.
Chanell modeled as an “American Girl” for the nonprofit Kids Beating Cancer, her Make-a-Wish was a shopping spree at Gymboree and Justice, and she always made sure she was totally dressed to the nines for Halloween. Having her own fashion show would’ve been a dream-come-true for Chanell, but she wasn’t there to experience it. Chanell was just 7 years old when she died from complications from sickle cell anemia in 2011.
Sickle cell anemia is an inherited disease that turns normal, round blood cells to a more crescent shape. Those blood cells are sticky and block blood flow to the limbs and organs, causing pain and organ damage.
You couldn’t tell Chanell was sick just by looking at her, and she did her best to never let on that she was. Her bravery inspired her parents to start the Chanell Wright Foundation out of their Apopka home, aiming to help families overcome the financial and emotional obstacles that come with having a child with a life-threatening illness.
“Some days it’s hard, but just to know we can help another child, and just knowing the experience that parents can go through with having a sick child, if we can help find cure, or just being able to support the families, it helps me get through the day, get through the months,” Chiquita said.
Since the foundation’s start in 2012 – less than a year after Tony and Chiquita Wright lost their daughter – they’ve raised more than $60,000 in Chanell’s memory. They’ve donated money to Kids Beating Cancer, the Make-a-Wish Foundation and other groups focused on children with illnesses.
“That they didn’t let that crush them, and they were still able to move forward and to propel through this and to really be able to help other people really shows their true hearts,” said Phil Burton, a friend and the designated emcee at all the organization’s charity events.
At a time when many families might fall apart, the Wright family got stronger. And they’ve done it for their daughter. Chanell loved helping others and wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up. Chiquita said she’s not sure if Chanell’s disease was the reason she wanted to be a doctor – she really just loved babies, Chiquita remembered with a smile.
“It’s something Chanell would’ve been proud of, to help other kids that may be going through a similar situation she went through,” Tony said.
Chanell loved school as well. She was passionate about learning and reading and always wanted her mom to go to college. The same week Chanell died she asked her mom again if she’d head back to school. Chiquita agreed, and now she’s using her daughter’s wish to make the foundation better by attending Rollins College. She’s earned several certificates educating her on the business aspect of running a charity, and is now seeking her bachelor’s degree in business and communications.
Chiquita has some big goals for the charity. They’d like to eventually build a home similar to the Ronald McDonald House, one that offers a free place to stay for families whose children are in the hospital and can’t afford a hotel. Right now they’re working on creating a program to directly help families, not just donate money to other charities. They hope to raise money for families who need financial help, particularly with hefty medical bills.
For more information about the Chanell Wright Foundation, visit chanellwrightfoundation.org
Chiquita said they know what it’s like to run out of sick time and vacation time. They were lucky enough that Tony had a job that could support them when Chiquita went weeks without pay because she spent days and nights next to Chanell in a hospital bed.
“We’re looking not just to have an event for the kids, but if their families are struggling – a medical bill, a prescription or something like that – we want to be that source to help them out if we could,” Tony said.
They’re also working on a partnership with Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando to be a part of the support groups for parents with sick kids. The Wrights would be there to give an insight into what parents can expect from a child with sickle cell anemia, to help them find meaning in the medical lingo, or just be there to listen. They understand what the parents are going through.
And they want to use the foundation as a way to never let them, or the world, forget their daughter. The little girl who shopped with her mom every Saturday, who loved to take car rides with her dad, and practiced choreographed dance moves with her sister Cherrish so they could put on a show for their family to her favorite Katy Perry song.
Their work keeps Chanell in their lives every day.
“You don’t forget her, but just being able to work on the foundation and to have that name, Chanell Wright, I can say her name every day, it’s like she’s right here with me,” Chiquita said.