Santa letters make season special for Bartlett teacher


Granddaughter benefits from Make-A-Wish

By Brian Bloom

Regional Manager

For Bartlett’s Rivercrest Elementary second grade teacher Marilee Schmidt, letters to Santa take on a special meaning.

The 10-year teaching veteran understands the Christmas spirit. Her eyes light up when her students write down their well-intentioned wishes because for Marilee, and hundreds of grandparents like her, she knows wishes can come true.

It wasn’t long ago when Marilee’s dreams were nightmares. She remembers hearing the words Acute Lymphothatic Leukemia (ALL) and understanding the doctors were talking about her granddaughter, Cookeville, Tenn. native Brookelyn Maxwell.

All of two and one half years of age and a bundle of blond and blue, Brookelyn was placed under the care of physicians at renowned Vanderbilt University.

“The family was devastated,” Marilee recalled, the ready smile fading from her face. “Vanderbilt followed St. Jude protocol,” she said about the treatment. “Brookelyn had 62 spinal taps before her parents final heard the news that the cancer was controlled.

“When cancer strikes a family,” Marilee said, “it strikes a FAMILY.” Everyone is involved, everyone is affected.”

That brings us back to the letters to Santa.

While young Brookelyn was struggling through recovery, Marilee Schmidt learned of a young social worker turned angel.

“This stranger, this person who cared, turned Brookelyn’s name in to Make-A-Wish,” Marilee said. “I mean we all know family and friends will be there for us and this family at Rivercrest Elementary has helped me a lot. I’ve gotten personal gifts, prayers at churches around town and sometimes just a hug… but this stranger, this kindness, was priceless.”

Make-A-Wish provides wishes for terminally ill children around the world. Working through the program, “Give Kids the World,” Brookelyn’s wish was simple. “Bweakfast with Cinderwella,” deciphered as Breakfast with Cinderella at Orlando’s Disney World.

“It’s a wonderful program,” Marilee said with a smile. “It started when one man wanted to help one child,” she said.

That man, Henri Landwirth, knew all too well what it is like to give up his childhood. A  WWII Nazi death and labor camps survivor, Henri spent his childhood in Auschwitz and Mauthausen.  By war’s end, both of his parents had been killed, but miraculously Henri and his twin sister, Margot, survived and were reunited.

Henri worked his way to America and after a stint in the military, used the GI Bill to get a degree in Hotel Management. It was there he learned of his first little girl suffering from leukemia. He arranged – through his connections with Disney World – a dream vacation for her, but the young girl died before travel arrangements could be organized.

Today, thousands of children are granted wishes to Give Kids the World Village.

Today, designer Ralph Lauren and Macy’s keeps dreams alive at Christmas with a $1 donation for every letter to Santa the stores receive.

In the classroom Marilee Schmidt said her students are working on the “five parts to the friendly letter,” skill. Writing to Santa Claus – well, you can’t get any more friendly than that.

Today, Brookelyn Maxwell strives to recover from the aggressive chemotherapy treatments. The now elementary student struggles with motor skills and has yet-unknown side effects to battle.