From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Little Changes

Perhaps an all-wise God knew that if any family could inspire a child to face the challenges that lie ahead, it was the Tapley family. My friend was born with a rare genetic disorder that left her with sensory neuropathy as one of its side effects. During her childhood, Rilla’s inability to feel pain allowed simple injuries to go unnoticed, often resulting in the partial amputation of a finger or toe caused by the onslaught of gangrene.

As a petite toddler, she struggled in vain to keep up with her cousins, but another manifestation of her condition had left Rilla with a lack of balance, which is vital when learning to walk. Despite these challenges, she eventually learned to ambulate by keeping her head steady and using her eyesight to maintain balance.

One day I asked, “Rilla, how did you ever find the strength to face life against such great obstacles?”

Giving me a pensive glance she responded, “While other children gained confidence and skill by participating in team sports, I learned these attributes by playing board games. Hour after endless hour, my Aunt Grace played games with me. Through these games I learned that although I may not be able to run like other children, I am proficient in other things.” As a tiny smile illuminated her face, she added, “I think Aunt Grace sometimes lets me win.”

From a very early age, Rilla decided that, since this was the only life she was going to have, she might as well make the best of it. She worked hard at school and upon graduation won academic honors that allowed her to pursue her love of knowledge at university. Years later, when she spoke of her youth she said, “I spent my childhood never knowing what the words ‘I can’t do that’ really meant.”

In the middle of her young adult years, the disease continued to progress, and after essential surgery she spent months in rehabilitation. During her convalescence, Rilla noticed that others could benefit from her teaching skills, so she volunteered to help tutor handicapped children.

Later on, she volunteered her teaching skills in the adult literacy program, and eventually she began to tutor a new immigrant family.

Sadly, as the years passed, Rilla’s disease continued to rob her of her already limited mobility. After several more corrective surgeries, hip replacements and finally a hip fusion, she had to finally face the fact that she would have to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

In the past, the more her disease progressed, the angrier she became and the more determined to prove that her doctors were wrong. She had always taken the doctor’s “no” and turned it into a “yes,” only this time her body definitely said “No!”

Her body could fight back no longer. “Where is God?

How much more do I have to take?” Rilla railed for the first few days after surgery.

But gradually, in the days that followed, my friend began to dream once more. Day after day her spirits soared to new heights. Her husband was largely responsible for her healing. Jim, a wonderful and patient man, smiled whenever Rilla shared her dreams with him, and he did all he could to help her achieve those dreams.

In one instance, Rilla dreamed of being a part of the opening ceremonies of the Confederation Bridge—a bridge that linked her home province with Canada’s smallest province, Prince Edward Island. Jim pushed her wheelchair across the bridge and made her dream become a reality.

She also dreamed of helping others. From her wheelchair, Rilla chaired the Terry Fox Run in our small community. Because no one could say “no” to Rilla, she and her team of volunteers raised thirty thousand dollars for cancer research in the last ten years. Rilla also served in her church, on the hospital board and at the local historical society.

Whenever asked about her motivation, Rilla modestly responds, “I believe that making little changes always makes a community a better place.”

Through the years that I’ve known her, my friend continues to make “little changes” wherever she goes.

In October 2000, Rilla was awarded the national prize presented by Canadian Airlines for demonstrating the true spirit of volunteerism.

Elaine Ingalls Hogg

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on The Terry Fox Foundation for cancer research, contact 416-924-8252; Web site: For information on The American Cancer Society, contact 800-ACS-2345; Web site:]

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