Each spring, Shelter Insurance holds a contest called “Thankful for Our Communities.” Five winners each receive a $5,000 grant for the charity of their choice. This year, Dean Stegall wrote a winning essay about Waynesboro and chose the Butterfly Foundation as the recipient of the $5,000 award. The check was presented on June 1st at the 10th Annual Butterfly Run/Walk celebration.

   The rules of the contest required entrants to write an essay or create a video about what makes their community special. The entry that earned the most votes was an automatic winner, and the next nine entries with the most votes were submitted to a panel of Shelter judges, who chose the next four winners.

   Shelter Insurance says that they always encourage community involvement, and this contest gives people an opportunity to explain what makes their community stand out. According to Frank Thompson, Vice President of Marketing for Shelter, “We chose this approach because we wanted to point out the many positive aspects to the communities we serve and honor the people who can make a difference in those areas. We also wanted to find out what’s important to the citizens in these communities and help support those causes. This contest was a fun way to do that.”

   Stegall’s essay, titled “Wide Open Hearts,” tells the story of how the Waynesboro community pulled together and demonstrated tremendous support during a time of tragedy in Mrs. Stegall’s family when granddaughter Ryleigh Meree Stegall was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Her testimony shines a light on the city of Waynesboro as being a place anyone would be proud to call home. She says, “Not only are you friends with almost everyone, but also the support that comes with that friendship is humbling, especially when tragedy strikes.” Mrs. Stegall’s experiences inspired her to begin the Butterfly Foundation. It serves as a testament of her appreciation for her community and it offers support to others during their time of need.

   Following is Mrs. Stegall’s essay.

Wide Open Hearts

by Dean Stegall

   Living in a small town can be one of life’s greatest blessings. Not only are you friends with almost everyone, but also the support that comes with that friendship is humbling, especially when tragedy strikes.

   My granddaughter Ryleigh Meree Stegall was a happy, beautiful, normal three-year-old. She had long, brown hair that she loved to wear in pigtails and an infectious smile that would melt your heart. In June 2000, while she and her seven-year-old sister Keerstin were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their baby brother Chandler, Ryleigh was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, which turned the Stegall world as we knew it, upside down. Our lives were shattered.  The necessary chemotherapy robbed Ryleigh of her beautiful hair. However, the smile was still as infectious as ever.

   As news of Ryleigh’s devastating illness traveled countywide, the compassion and kindness were overwhelming. From the day Ryleigh was diagnosed until the day she died on September 14, 2007, the outpouring of love, concern, and generosity was monumental.

   During the seven-year battle with her illness, our community continued to rally around her.  Acts of kindness were not only bestowed on Ryleigh, but also on big sister Keerstin and baby brother Chandler. Innumerable cards were received for Ryleigh and for her siblings. Gifts were sent to Ryleigh from thoughtful friends who never forgot to enclose extra surprises for Keerstin and Chandler.

   Our community supported countless prayer services. Benefits were held to help defray the expense of the many trips to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital for doctor visits, chemotherapy and two bone marrow transplants; and, of course automatic stops at Ryleigh’s favorite place, McDonald’s.

   On one occasion I was shopping at the local grocery store and a friend inquired about Ryleigh and her condition. During our conversation he reached in his pocket and handed me a $100 dollar bill. To me, it seemed as if he had been carrying that money in his pocket just waiting for the opportunity to express his compassion. I later learned this friend had also given the same amount to other family members.

   Ryleigh was able to enroll in kindergarten at Waynesboro Elementary School in the fall of 2002. She loved her school, her friends, and her teacher. By March 2003, Ryleigh had relapsed. Her school days at WES had ended, but the love the students had for Ryleigh continued to grow.  I became her teacher for the next four years and we often visited the school so she could attend parties or go with her class on field trips. Ryleigh was never forgotten.

   After her relapse, plans were made to fly to M D Anderson Hospital for experimental chemotherapy and radiation. Ryleigh and her parents stopped by our house as they were leaving town to catch their early flight, her former kindergarten teacher also arrived with a bag of supplies she thought Ryleigh might need. Priceless!

   Shortly after Ryleigh’s death, I approached the Wayne County Director of Schools asking permission to organize a walk to remember Ryleigh and involve the schools in the county. I wanted her to be remembered as a normal kid with a smile that could light up a room. It took only a moment for his positive reply. Ryleigh’s love for school and her friends lives on through the Ryleigh’s Walk each November. T-shirts were sold and donations received. This was the beginning of many successful events. Friends and neighbors also participate each year to show their continuous love, respect, and support.

   Ryleigh and the entire Stegall Family felt the overpowering love and concern from every part of our large county every day during Ryleigh’s illness. The enduring connection we felt inspired our decision to create a 501(c)3 foundation to give something back to the community who had given so much to our family. In the fall of 2007, the “Butterfly Foundation” was established to provide assistance to families who have children with life-threatening or life altering illnesses. 

   Today we have an all-volunteer board of directors who work tirelessly to support the assistance we provide families of sick children. Families in Wayne County, Lawrence County, Perry County, Lewis County, and Hardin County are all benefactors of the efforts of this amazing foundation. As of April 15, we have distributed more than $632,000 to more than 275 families in this area. The community continues to show their love. Why call it the Butterfly Foundation?   Because Ryleigh loved butterflies and we loved Ryleigh.