Memorial for 10-year-old childhood cancer activist dedicated on Hilton Head Island

They had to pull more chairs into the gym.

Around 70 already had been set up in front of the stage, but with every new arrival for Alex Arrieta’s memorial dedication, it became more clear that there weren’t nearly enough chairs for everyone to sit.

Family members milled and greeted friends and public officials as someone pulled a cart of seats into the gymnasium at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts, its rattling mingling with church music and conversation. U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham took a seat, as did new Beaufort County School District Superintendent Frank Rodriguez.

Alex, in images projected on a screen, smiled through it all.

It’s been three years since Alex died of a heart attack at 10 years old, a day after being told his acute myeloid leukemia was no longer detectable and that he’d soon be able to receive a bone marrow transplant. The heart attack was a side effect of the aggressive chemotherapy he had undergone, the same as his collapsed right lung, chronic pain and two forms of pneumonia.

But in every photo that flashed across in a slideshow — on the soccer field, in the hospital bed, at the pep rally the school had hosted for him — Alex was beaming.

Monday marked the dedication of a 500-pound statue honoring Alex at his old school, one that’s shaped like a soccer ball and covered in the 10-year-old’s favorite things.

The family “had a list for Alex’s personality,” said Colleton Graves, a May River High School graduate who led the welding class in building the sculpture during her senior year. The statue is meant to memorialize the boy “as a whole, not just as a little guy going through a hard time.”

On various panels of the 5-foot-tall soccer ball, a carbon steel gecko peers down at R2-D2 from Star Wars, the words “Hero” and “Faith” bookending the two figures. On the front, two bright orange panels — the color for leukemia — stick out from the rest of the statue, emblazoned with the name of the charity Alex and his father, Brandon Arietta, started: “Lambs for Life.”

The charity, which provides stuffed lambs, flannel pillowcases and toys to children being treated for cancer, has grown immensely in the three years since Alex presented the idea.

He didn’t want more presents and toys like the ones he’d received during his first round of treatment. Instead, he got people to donate thousands of stuffed lambs, just like the one he had held onto since infancy, to other kids.

Now, Lambs for Life is working with the White House Domestic Policy Council on a childhood cancer initiative that will be announced in September. U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham sent letters to the memorial, as did South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster.

“We’ve hit a tipping point,” Brandon Arietta said. “We need to get some office space. It’s not just a one-guy operation anymore.”

But advocacy efforts felt far away from Monday’s ceremony, even as Rep. Cunningham hugged Alex’s father goodbye.

Brandon Arietta looked back at the memorial, still stunned.

“It’s overwhelming — it’s hard to put into words,” he said. “Even being involved in it, I couldn’t picture something like this.”

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet