Photo and article by Fred Kroner: Members of the Edwards family from Mahomet served as bell-ringers for the Salvation Army last week at Prairie Gardens. From left are, Layla, 8, Lucy, 6, Easton, 1, and Ella, 11. The sisters, dressed as elves, sang Christmas carols during their four-hour shift.
Ella Edwards is 11 years old and in sixth grade.
Her two sisters are both younger.
They have already experienced more of life’s hardships in their years than many have to face in their first 20 years.
Collectively, the Mahomet residents have also experienced and shared one of life’s most rewarding lessons, one that many haven’t achieved well into adulthood, if at all.
“The girls all know that life is short and that giving is always the answer rather than receiving,” said Rachael Edwards, their mother.
This story starts on Halloween Night, 2013.
The Edwards family had relocated from Missouri — between St. Louis and Hannibal — to Mahomet two months earlier, in time for the start of the school year.
Halloween that year was a Thursday night, but Rachael Edwards was in the St. Louis area with two of her daughters, visiting relatives and helping at her father’s law office.
The original plan was for Layla Edwards, who had recently turned 4 years old, to spend the night with her cousin, Riley Miller, who was less than two months from his fourth birthday.
The cousins were close and, Rachael Edwards said, “went to the same daycare together.”
They said their goodbyes that night and left for Mahomet — with Layla in tow — arriving shortly before midnight.
It was important that they get back home, where Ben and Ella were waiting.
“The Storybook Parade (at Sangamon School) was the next day,” Rachael Edwards said.
Ella Edwards was in second grade. It was to be her first Storybook Parade.
Instead of going to bed, however, they were met at the front door by
Rachael Edwards’ husband, Ben, and Ella, who was dressed.
He told them they had to leave immediately for St. Louis.
There had been a fire at the Miller residence.
Rachael Edwards’ brother and sister-in-law had survived. Little Riley Miller had died.
“It was a crazy, freak accident,” Rachael Edwards said, “an electrical fire.
“The girls didn’t understand death until Riley (passed away).”
The following year, the girls weren’t interested in participating in Halloween.
Mom and Dad understood.
“It was so hard on everyone,” Rachael Edwards said. ”Still is.”
By Halloween 2015, Rachael and Ben Edwards wanted to change the somber nature of the event for their children.
“I said, ‘You need to do something,’ “ Rachael Edwards said. “He (Riley) was such a happy little guy. He wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
The girls formulated a plan by themselves.
“They said they wanted to give back to kids in the hospital,” Rachael Edwards said. “Lucy (the youngest) said, ‘The hospital took such good care of my sister.’ “
The family had gotten used to the inside of hospital rooms.
Following her cousin’s tragic death, Layla Edwards spent two weeks as a patient at Carle Foundation Hospital and then endured three different stays in a St. Louis hospital over a period of months while tests were conducted. She was there for Easter, 2014.
“She had seizures and at one time had leads on her head (monitoring brain activity) that got changed every 72 hours,” Rachael Edwards said. “They determined it was PTSD from the fire.”
At their age, the girls didn’t have a lot of money of their own to contribute to helping others.
Their fortunes changed this year.
Rachael Edwards likes to dress her daughters in matching outfits, and at the Trunk or Treat event in October, they won the runner-up prize in the costume division.
“They won a $30 giftcard from Toys “R” Us,” Rachael Edwards said.
When they went shopping, 11-year-old Ella, 8-year-old Layla and 6-year-old
Lucy had the gift card, plus some additional funds.
Their parents chipped in a little extra, too, leaving the sisters with $150 for gifts.
“They had some Tooth Fairy money saved up,” Rachael Edwards said. “They spent every penny.”
While they purchased items they might enjoy, they didn’t purchase items they would keep.
The girls put together more than 30 gift bags that they delivered to patients at Carle Foundation Hospital.
The bags included crayons, coloring books, puzzles and, Rachael Edwards said, items “to make the kids cooped up inside feel special.
“This was the fourth time they donated everything.”
Lucy Edwards, a first-grader, has a real-world comprehension of what she and her sisters had set out to do.
There was no reluctance in donating her money for the cause.
“It was easy,” she said. “To help others is good.”
The children didn’t reach this understanding on their own.
“Our parents raised us like that, to be kind children,” Ella Edwards said.
“No questions asked. It was so easy to do that.
“You get a feeling of joy, knowing you’ve made someone’s day.”
Second-grader Layla Edwards’ contributions were made with one thought in mind.
The memory of her cousin Riley, she said, “made me want to help others.”
Rachael and Ben Edwards accompanied their daughters to the pediatric ward of Carle Hospital on Nov. 4. On that exact day — four years earlier — was the funeral service for Riley Jeffrey Miller.
“They needed to show the light in their life and make it a positive day,” Rachael Edwards said.
The girls didn’t just deliver the gift bags and head home to play with their toys.
“They handed them out and spent several hours playing with the kids that were able to, lifting their spirits,” Rachael Edwards said.
A couple weeks later, the girls were still demonstrating the generosity of giving.
They handled a four-hour shift as bell-ringers for the Salvation Army at Prairie Gardens.
The girls were dressed up as elves for their shift on Monday, Nov. 20 and as Mrs. Claus when they returned for two hours on Nov. 22.
Little bother Easton, who will turn 2 on Valentine’s Day, was dressed as Rudolph.
“They were singing Christmas carols the entire time,” Rachael Edwards said.
The girls felt compelled to do this. Just a few years ago, they were a foursome for the bellringing.
“Riley did it with us,” Layla Edwards said. “We did the Christmas carols in his honor.”
According to Ella Edwards, their commitment can be traced back to their cousin’s death.
“It opened my eyes,” Ella Edwards said. “Not everything goes your way, but you’ve got to make the best of it.
“Ringing the bells is a big honor. It makes a lot of people happy. It makes us happy.”
From what she has observed, Rachael Edwards believes her daughters are in the minority.
“You don’t see many young kids participating (as bellringers),” she said.
For their part, Rachael and Ben Edwards — who have been married for 13 years — are playing the role that comes with being parents.
“We’re trying to keep them focused on the good,” Rachael Edwards said.
“They’ve been through more at a young age than most have in their lifetime.”
Rachael Edwards believes it’s only logical for children to be involved in the Salvation Army bellringing.
“My children wouldn’t feel comfortable going up to a strange adult (to donate),” she said, “but this provides a comfort level and is an eye-opener.
“It opens so many kids’ eyes. They ask (the adult they are with) for another dollar.
“It’s like riding a merry-go-round. They think if they put in more money, they’ll keep singing. It brings an awareness. I’d like to think when they’re in the car, maybe they’ll ask, ‘What are those kids doing?’ “
For Ella, Layla and Lucy Edwards, that’s an easy question to answer.