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Shelby's Christmas angels emerge to help family

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The spirit of the holiday seldom has been more apparent that it is with the Hay family in Shelbyville, whose very difficult season has been made much brighter.

By Todd Martin

You see it all year round: Shelby Countians continuing to support their own like no other, raising thousands and thousands of dollars for dozens of organizations, charities and families in need.

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But maybe you don’t quite understand until you hear a special story that has all the earmarks of a script for a holiday movie on the Hallmark channel.

This is one such story of Christmas angels in Shelby County.

On Nov. 14, when Tom and Gabrielle Hay's 10-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, a grade III cancerous brain tumor, they didn't know what their next few days or weeks or months would look like.

Just as all of us were starting to prepare for the holiday stretch – just 11 days before Thanksgiving and 41 days before Christmas – the Hays were facing a most dire diagnosis – that their daughter may not have long to live.

"It was a day I'll never forget," Gabrielle Hay said.

But all that chaos just dropped into their laps brought with it a level appreciation of understanding and giving that they never knew existed, an almost angelic view from those around them.

This will be a Christmas they likely won’t forget.

"We're not good at asking for help," Tom Hay said. "But some of our friends started doing some things and then our church, and then other churches and people we didn't know – people from the high school and our daughter's school [Clear Creek Elementary]. There were people knocking on our door to help and bring us food."

Gabrielle Hay said she has been amazed.

"I've lived in Shelby County my whole life, and I never thought this community could be so giving and so selfless."

In came a month's worth of dinners and a Kroger gift card from Christ Community Church, which is not where the Hays attend.

Then it was Joni Husband and Beth Hoehner setting up a Zumba benefit at Shelby County High School.

"And one person made Elizabeth's dream come true," Gabrielle Hay said. "They gave her a horse."

That would be Carissa Sanford, who went to school with Gabrielle.

Their families have known each other, but when Sanford, who works at Johnson Veterinary Clinic in Simpsonville, heard about Elizabeth's love of horses, she said she knew she should step in.

"I called a few people, and my uncle trails horses, so I called him, too," she said. "Finally, he gave me a number of somebody at Equine Services. They have recipient mares that sometimes don't take – get pregnant – and they were looking to get rid of them. There was nothing wrong with them. They just couldn't get pregnant.

"This one, they had given to 4-H, and she had bad feet, but they got her fixed up.

"I know they think I did a lot, but really I can't imagine going through what they are."

With two kids of her own and a mother who passed away from breast cancer, Sanford said she just wanted to find a way to help.

"There are no words to make her feel better, so I just wanted to do whatever I could to help that little girl," she said.

The horse, named Mama, Gabrielle Hay said, is now being stabled by Sheryl Weaver.

You would think that would be as good as it gets, but the assistance didn't stall there.

Dawn Horine with Will You Remember Photography in Shelbyville provided family pictures.

And then there's their neighborhood.

"Our entire subdivision [Hi Point] has been amazing," said Gabrielle Hay. "One neighbor is bringing a full Christmas dinner over on Saturday, and another brought a collection from her church. It's just hard to put into words what a blessing it's all been."

That includes one set of neighbors they barely knew, Stacey and Chris Floden, who purchased wristbands that say "Miracle for Elizabeth" to sell and raise money.

"They bought them all; it's amazing," she said.

But the final touch came from none other than Santa Claus.

He didn't land on the Hays’ rooftop or slide down their chimney, but he's helping take care of the all the good boys and girls.

"He brought us a check the other day," Gabrielle Hay said.

The Santa at Rural King, as he's known, wants no credit or pats on the back for his help.

"Every year that I've been dressing up as Santa Claus, I've found someone or some group in the community to donate what I make," he said.

Santa, who asked that his private name not be used, said he was working one day when he heard the story.

"Her aunt started to tear up and told the me the story, and it just broke my heart," he said. "I teared up with her, and right then promised I'd do everything in my power to help her and her family have a good Christmas."

The thing with this Santa is, he doesn't charge.

"I just let you know my cause, and you can donate if you want to," he said.

He said Whitaker Bank in Frankfort, the Spencer County Fish and Game Club, East Shelby Volunteer Fire and Shelby County Fire Department have been kind enough to help him help the Hays this year. And there's more help coming.

"It just breaks my heart," he said. "Everyone needs to keep her [Elizabeth] and her family in their thoughts and prayers this Christmas because sometimes Christmas miracles do happen."

And the Hays may indeed believe Christmas angels are helping them through the toughest holiday season of their lives.

"It's amazing the way this community has stepped up to be so selfless," said Gabrielle Hay, pausing momentarily to reign in her emotions. "So selfless just to help our family."