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A child’s legacy: Will’s Gift Giving

December 21, 2012

It was a day like any other day. But it was a day that this family would soon realize, would change their lives forever. Will had been out on a Sunday, wakeboarding on one of the lakes in Central Florida, along with over 20 other people boating and skiing that day. On a hot summer day in late July of 2007, the cool, fresh water was the perfect way to escape the scorching heat.

Three days later, Will had a rash and was complaining of a headache. That Friday, he had a fever and was vomiting. These symptoms quickly progressed, as Will became increasingly disoriented and lethargic. His father rushed him to the closest emergency room, and he was quickly transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital. Dr. Tilleli and his team started Will on antibiotics right away, believing he was suffering from either encephalitis or meningitis. Will’s brain quickly started to swell, and a drain was installed to relieve the pressure. It was then that Will’s condition was diagnosed; he had contracted a rare amoeba just 9 days earlier on his wakeboarding outing.  Dr. Tilleli did everything he could to try and find a cure for Will, even reaching out to physicians across the globe for help. But Will, fighting so hard to survive, couldn’t withstand this deadly parasite any longer. At just 11 years old, he passed away with the love and comfort of his family and friends by his side.

In the trying days leading up to Will’s death, his family was surrounded by the support of their community. Peggy, Will’s mother, explains, “You really don’t realize how much support and love you have until something tragic like this happens.” And that love and support filled the hallways, as teachers, parents, and kids from Will’s school lined up outside his room, as they were told Will only had a few hours left to live. Amidst the love and support that surrounded them, Will’s death felt like an unexpected nightmare, as Peggy and Steve were robbed of their loving and vivacious son.

This family’s story isn’t told simply to capture your sympathy, but rather, it is a story of hope- hope that even in the darkest times, and most unbearable situations, strength is on the other side. You see, it’s HOW this family responded to their son’s death that is truly moving. And their strength is inspired by Will. He was strong to overcome the obstacles he faced and to fight for his life. He was a boy that had the sweetest, and most compassionate heart, who held a special place in the hearts of many. He has left a legacy for those closest to him to keep on living in his absence.

In the days following Will’s death, his family returned to the hospital to thank Dr. Tilleli for fighting for their son. This is something that they were told no family had done before. They also started the Will Sellars Foundation to help raise awareness, and educate others on waterborne amoebas. Will’s family continues to tell his story, in hopes of saving the lives of others. And the thing they hold closest to their hearts is what they call “Will’s Gift Giving”, because they know that Will would want to be right there beside them, bringing joy to other sick kids.

Will’s Gift Giving is an initiative they started the first holiday season following Will’s death. Will’s family, friends, and community rally together to collect toys to donate to Arnold Palmer Hospital’s Santa’s Workshop. This workshop ensures that the kids at the hospital get to experience the magic of Christmas, as nurses deliver sacks of toys to each child’s bedside in the wee hours of Christmas morning for the kids to wake up to. The toys donated during Will’s Gift Giving are to be given to middle school aged kids, the age Will was when he passed away. Will’s family and community want these kids to know that they are cared for and loved, just as Will was during his short time at the hospital.

Losing a child is not something any parent wants to face. But for Peggy and Troy, Will's stepfather, it was a reality. They found that the best way to move forward was to keep Will in their daily life, by doing the things they used to, no matter how hard it was. “People will tell you, it gets easier. But it doesn’t. It just gets different,” Peggy says. And for Will’s family, different means making a difference, one child at a time.

To learn more about the Will Sellars Foundation, visit here.