Have you ever heard someone speak of people being the “hands and feet of Jesus” on this earth? Join us as we meet Huntsville native Taylor Ernst, who brought that statement to life on the campus of Baylor University by creating an organization that blesses others, changes lives, and will endure even after Taylor’s graduation this year.
It was a hot day in late September as Tony Zhang struggled to get to his classes on the campus of Baylor University. He had awakened as usual at 4:00 a.m. and bypassed breakfast in order to get an early start to his day and to classes on time. Now, ringed with sweat and laboring through each step as he clung to his walker, he realized his optimistic schedule would not be realized. In fact, it took him two hours to get to his furthest class; on many days, he would have to select a class to miss. His grades were suffering, and his continued enrollment was in doubt. Tony has severe cerebral palsy; tasks that are simple for others take tremendous effort to accomplish.
A student passing nearby immediately recognized Tony and, eyes riveted with concern and a heart heavy with compassion, hurried to offer assistance to his friend. Taylor Ernst had met Tony earlier in the semester as he had helped him through a doorway into one of the buildings on campus. After a brief hello and some instructions, Taylor hurried to get his truck and deliver Tony to his destination.
Through the next few days, Taylor could not shake the thought of Tony’s struggles. He was especially gripped by his friend’s statement on how blessed he was, “There are many others far worse off than me.” Something had to be done. Taylor decided he would spend his money earned over the summer to help buy a motorized scooter, and he thought some of his friends might be willing to chip in. He wrote up a brief story and initiated a GoFundMe account in hopes of making it a reality. To his shock, in less than an hour $750 had been raised, and a total of $6,500 was raised in under two weeks’ time! What had been a dream was now a blessed reality! The scooter was obtained at cost which left ample funds to purchase shoes, clothing and some school items for Tony. After accomplishing these goals, a balance of $5,500 remained.
Taylor decided to find other needs to put the balance of funds toward and realized something more permanent needed to be put into place first. A constitution was drawn up, volunteers came forth, officers were elected, and a new organization was chartered through the Baylor Student Organization. Baylor Helping Hands was born!
Baylor Helping Hands strives to assist any person or family in the Waco area who has been affected by any type of disability who hasn’t received the care that they deserve. Their guiding principle is derived from Matthew 5:16 which states, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father that is in heaven.” This they have done and continue to do as they meet needs for people of all ages and in all facets of life. Through the process, Taylor has become acquainted with the head of Special Olympics and all the special education directors in the area, and through everyone’s participation, many goals have been met. The following stories representing only a few.
In a call to Sharon Blanchard, the special education director for Midway ISD, Baylor Helping Hands learned that Midway High School senior Cody Kusler was having a difficult time progressing in his school work and needed a specialized supportive positioning chair. Cody has been diagnosed with low-functioning autism and has epilepsy as well. After only a few days of emails, networking and personal outreach, Helping Hands raised $4,500, more than enough to purchase the chair and to bring a new and enriching outlook on life for a very delighted and grateful Cody. His smile said it all! “To raise that much money in three days, that stuff doesn’t just happen,” remarked Taylor. “There’s got to be something else involved. It was just God using people to do His work.”
And God has continued to do His work through Taylor and Baylor Helping Hands. In just an hour, $2,600 was raised to make 7-year-old Caoimhe’s dream of becoming independent come true! Jason and Amy McCarty learned through an ultrasound on Valentine’s Day of 2011 their expected daughter Caoimhe (pronounced key-vuh) would be born with Encephalocele, a condition requiring brain surgery shortly after birth. Born 4 weeks early, Caoimhe had the surgery when 4 days old. During her young life, she has never been able to move independently until the compassionate and energetic volunteers of Helping Hands reached out and provided Caoimhe her own motorized wheelchair. “Honestly,” stated Taylor, “within an hour, total God thing, we actually had one single person donate all the $2,600.” According to her mom Amy, they had been working on this for about two years trying to get her something that she could move herself in. “It’s nothing short of a miracle,” declared Jason, grateful for his daughter’s new-found independence.
God continues to work through the capable and willing hands of the many volunteers of Helping Hands and the generous hearts of a multitude of donors. According to volunteer Criston Cade, “We try to live by the idea that we all live to help each other.” Taylor added, “People have the ability, just because of the way we were created, to make a difference and to make a positive impact in the community. It could be the smallest thing ever, or it could be the biggest thing ever.” Generous donations, both large and small, have come from the Waco community, from the members and alumni of Taylor’s fraternity Delta Tau Delta, and an overwhelming commitment from the people of Huntsville. “If I could put on a graph the percentage of donations made by people from Huntsville, it would be 70-75% of the whole. They have been fantastic and never seek recognition for their giving. They prefer to remain anonymous! This embodies the Huntsville spirit and, when I’m at Baylor, I feel I have the whole community of Huntsville behind me. I am really grateful for their support.”
In addition to supplying essential and expensive equipment and appliances local children and students need, the volunteers of Baylor Helping Hands sponsor a dance each year for all the special needs children and their families in the community. The large-scale event offers a night of fun, food, and dancing at no cost for all the guests and is well-attended by volunteers, usually 150 – 200 on hand to serve food and assist with all the activities. Children have been delighted in the past with a Hawaiian theme one year and a Superheroes theme another. Taylor expects this event to get bigger each year, just as the outreach of Helping Hands is doing.
Baylor Helping Hands recently extended its reach into the life of 4-year-old Alaynia Davis, a victim of cerebral palsy and scoliosis. Just in time for the holiday season, she was presented with a new medical chair costing $7,700. As she switched from her well-worn toddler stroller to the custom medical chair, she had an immediate change of behavior as she was finally able to sit in comfort. She became a joyous young girl! As her grandmother Betty Turner noted, “We just thought it was the most awesome thing anybody can do for somebody. We’re just happy that she’s getting help.” From Taylor’s viewpoint, “I’m not gonna lie. I really doubted it, whenever I saw the price tag. I thought, okay, maybe we’re going to pay for 50 percent of it, but they’re going to have to find their own way, and it actually worked out pretty quick.” It was the largest financial need to date for Baylor Helping Hands. Fortunately, the funds materialized quickly with help from the local Robinson 4-H Club. Using extra funds from a previous fundraiser, the Robinson students were able to help get the goal accomplished.
Is Baylor Helping Hands making a difference for those with special needs in the Waco area? A resounding “YES” is that answer! But not only is a positive impact made in the lives of those on the receiving end, but in the lives of those on the giving end as well. Kate Kassal, one of the volunteers with Special Olympics and the Helping Hands dance event, stated it well when she said, “At least for me while volunteering, I feel like I am doing something for the people I am volunteering for, but I feel like I learn a lot more from them – and they give more to me than I’ll ever be able to give back to them.” Taylor remarked in agreement, “Emotionally, it’s one of the most fulfilling things you can do in this life.” Taylor, son of Robert and Blythe Ernst, has brought glory to God, joy to Waco, and pride to Huntsville as we are blessed to call him one of our own.
To make a donation go to baylorhelpinghands.org.