Brock Harrell, 12, couldn't cannonball into a swimming pool for more than a year. Sick with a rare blood disorder that was threatening his life, his weakened immune system couldn't handle potential exposure to waterborne germs.
It was the same thing with other simple pleasures, including dining out. His stepdad cooked every meal at the family's home in Jasper, Ga., hoping to protect Brock from the possibility of food poisoning that could prove to be fatal.
Even a bike ride around the block left Brock winded and weak. It too became an activity he just couldn't manage.
Then about a year ago, life took a turn for the better. A bone marrow transplant breathed new life into Brock's body. His condition, called aplistic anemia, was on the decline.
Hilton Head Heroes, a local charity, stepped in to help the Harrells celebrate the recovery.
The nonprofit paid for a week-long Hilton Head vacation for the Harrells, marking the family's first trip together since Brock was 8 and became ill.
They stayed for free in a Sea Pines Resort home the charity owns. The large house, outfitted with a gameroom, a pool -- and an ocean out back -- was a kid's dream come true.
Even though it was November, Brock and his family plunged into the pool one night, shivering and laughing. They called it their own polar bear plunge.
And on Thanksgiving day, Brock gobbled down plates of Thanksgiving ham (his preference to traditional turkey) in the big house's dining room.
In the afternoons, he jumped on a bike and pedaled so hard and so fast along the bike paths that his parents were left wide eyed and laughing. "Last one home is a rotten egg!" he taunted as he left them in his wake.
Yes, his mother thought, Brock is back.
Stephanie Harrell said she is grateful to the charity for letting her little boy enjoy his newfound energy in such a beautiful spot.
"It's just great to have such a thoughtful organization," she said. "They've done other things we wouldn't even think of like (paying for us to have) a professional portrait. When you're immersed in that medical world, the last thing you think about is getting a nice picture."
'We give them a week to be a family'
Hilton Head Heroes, in existence for 15 years, was recently named one of the best-run nonprofits in South Carolina by S.C. Secretary of State Mark Hammond and was featured on the agency's 20th annual "Angels and Scrooges" list. The list is compiled each year to honor charities that are financially sound and expose those that engage in wasteful spending.
Hilton Head Heroes uses 85 percent of the $150,000 it raises annually to pay for week-long vacations in Hilton Head for sick children and their families. Most of its other funds pay the mortgage on the house the charity bought in 2006.
Each trip costs the organization about $5,000 to $6,000, when mortgage payments are factored in.
Nearly every week of the year, the organization's founders, Lindy and Gregg Russell, invite families to the house that includes a foosball table and big TVs.
Donations from local companies keep the house running, including house and pool cleaning services, landscaping and groceries.
Five restaurants also give the charity a deal to provide six meals for each family. Hilton Head Heroes adds $100 in spending money in every welcome package. Local photographer Faith Seiders snaps a beach portrait so each family will have a keepsake to take home with them.
"What we do is give families a chance to take a breath," said Gregg Russell, best known for his regular musical performances in Harbor Town each summer. "We don't fix anything; we don't cure anything. We give them a week to be a family. And, unfortunately, a lot of the times they know they are going to be saying good-bye, so it might be one of the last times."
Granting wishes one family at a time
Brock's only special request during his Hilton Head vacation was to go fishing.
The charity obliged. Using a fishing pole he got for Christmas last year, Brock reeled in flounder, redfish and black drum during the weekend.
Other kids have made other requests of the charity, including manicures, day cruises on the water and talks with nature experts.
Hilton Head Heroes has granted them all.
One 9-year-old boy, Carson Ross, who loves watching golf on TV, wanted to play a few holes at Harbour Town Golf Links, where the Heritage Classic is held each year.
The charity had a Professional Golfers Association caddy come out to meet the family during their trip this summer. He was dressed with Ross' name on his back, just like the pros.
Ross' family followed the little golfer as a small gallery cheered him on.
Gregg Russell came up with the idea for the charity after traveling the country putting on musical shows at children's hospitals.
"I thought, 'We really have a special place here in Hilton Head,'" he said. "Wouldn't it be just great if we could bring some of these kids here to see it."
The first year, the organization brought 18 kids to the island, housing them in timeshares and homes of part-time residents the couple knew on the island. Eventually the organization grew large enough to purchase the Heroes House.
Now, the organization has relationships with hospitals and social workers across the Southeast who refer families who are in need of a vacation. Many of the children are in the last few months of their lives and require hospice care. The house features a special room with an adjustable bed and an IV pole.
Many of the visiting families are low-income, under the added strain of health care costs and often having to leave work when faced with their kids' illness.
"Some families we've had actually live in Savannah but have never even seen the ocean," said Lindy Russell, who works full-time running the organization and planning the individualized vacations.
Every year, the thank-you letters pour in from guests, who say their Hilton Head vacation was a balm against cruel circumstances.
The charitable work has benefited the Russells too. They now view the world through new eyes.
"You can't think about anything trivial in (your) life when you look at people with big issues," Lindy Russell said. "It makes us appreciate our life here. I think, 'How great is this place -- that the community can give so much, that we can share our home with people who really need to see it."
For Brock's family, the trip will be remembered as a celebration of life -- both the big and small parts of it . There was that triumphant dive into the pool's cool water. And there was the little pine cone they scooped off the ground, decorated and named Larry.
"I look back a year ago, and none of that would have been possible," Harrell said. "It was all a gift."
Follow reporter Erin Heffernan on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_erinh.
- A chance encounter brings back memories of the inspiration behind Hilton Head Heroes, September 12, 2013.
- Hilton Head charity named 'angel' on SC nonprofit list, November 23, 2015.
- Angel story a reminder unselfish acts matter, March 5, 2012.