THE LIGHT SERIES
When life delivers darkness, we have the ability to bring light, for ourselves and for one another.
Casey Williams was a fun-loving twenty-three year old with a forte for making friends. The youngest of three, Casey was protective and loyal, especially of her sisters, Courtney and Chelbi.
From childhood swimming parties in her hometown of Assumption, Illinois, to Central A&M high school football games, to studying at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Casey was surrounded by people who loved her. Her smile lit up her face, her presence lit up a room, and her spirits were seldomly dampened. That all changed in October of 2009.
Throughout the state, that October became the second wettest on record. Illinois normally averages 2.87 inches of rain in October. In 2009, 8.40 inches were reported (Illinois State Water Survey).
Particularly annoyed by the constant deluge of water, Casey posted, “sooo sick of freaking rain!” to Facebook on October 26th.
She couldn’t have known that four days later, on October 30th, she’d be involved in a single car accident that would claim her life. The cause? Hydroplaning.
The morning of the accident, Casey avoided her usual route to work – a blacktop – due to its bad reputation with any kind of precipitation. The country road she took turned out to be nearly covered in water; an uphill stretch of bumpy road created a washboard effect.
“She hit a pothole and went straight into a telephone pole,” says Chelbi. “Her car landed upside down in a ditch overflowed with water. She died instantly.”
News of the accident spread through Casey’s small hometown and beyond.
Tears fell like rain.
By 9:00 that morning, Courtney, Chelbi, and their parents sat in a hospital trauma room by Casey’s side. Since Casey was an organ and tissue donor, her family was able to stay with her following the accident. Because no vital organs could be recovered, it took longer to get a crew to her.
“It was around 3:00 before they came and got her,” says Chelbi. “We spent the day with her.”
While with Casey, a woman representing Donate Life, the national organ and tissue donation organization, visited the Williams’. She gave them brochures and Donate Life’s signature green bracelets. Three days later, the same items were placed at the visitation.
1,800 hundred people when through Casey’s visitation line – more than the population of Assumption. “Forty percent of them were crying about losing their best friend,” recalls Courtney.
As the masses poured through to pay their respects, many put on a green Donate Life bracelet to remember their friend Casey. “Everyone associated that with her,” says Courtney.
By Casey’s funeral, her corneas had already been matched with two different recipients in Missouri. Her heart valve, bone marrow, bone, and a rotator cuff were all donated. Her skin went to burn victims.
“We got a letter from a mother whose daughter received a ligament saying her quality of life is better because she can play sports. We’re assuming she received an ACL [anterior cruciate ligament],” says Courtney. In total, about fifty tissues and other parts were recovered.
While alive, Casey’s care for others led to frequent giving. Courtney and Chelbi knew the Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials got to her; it wasn’t until after the accident that they found receipts for sponsoring a child.
“She gave to breast cancer and dogs and babies in Haiti. This was her last big donation,” says Courtney.
The shock of the accident left Chelbi wondering. “Casey had a blast while she was alive. Why should she have had to die? And, what can we do?”
Shortly thereafter, Lindsay, one of Casey’s childhood friends, approached Courtney and Chelbi about an opportunity at a bar in Decatur, IL.
“Timbuktu wanted to do a sand volleyball tournament, and Lindsay wondered if we’d want it to be a benefit,” says Chelbi. “Courtney text her the next day and said, ‘We’re in!’
“It all fell together. We were at our cousin’s bridal shower in February talking about the upcoming event. We needed a name, and we needed a logo. We wanted a ‘CW’ or a wing, and that’s all we knew. Our cousin pulled out a pen and napkin, drew something, and said, ‘Like this?’”
The pink CW wings have been the logo for the Casey Williams Foundation (CWF) ever since.
Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, exactly seven months after Casey’s accident, the Williams sisters and the CWF board launched the Casey Williams Foundation Sand Volleyball Tournament.
The first event brought twenty-four teams and five hundred people. All proceeds from team entrant fees, raffle tickets, and silent and live auctions went toward the foundation.
The CWF’s board hoped to raise enough money for scholarships for local and area high school seniors. “We raised $8,000 that year before bills,” says Chelbi.
In addition to having enough money for scholarships, a check was sent to Donate Life from the CWF.
The second year, the tournament raised $17,000. By May of 2017, thirty-two teams played in the Eighth Annual Casey Williams Foundation Sand Volleyball Tournament.
“Every year we think that this will be the year it declines, and so far it hasn’t,” says Courtney.
It’s been nearly eight years since Casey’s accident. In addition to eight sand volley tournaments, the CWF has hosted seven golf scrambles.
In Assumption, the CWF sponsors a .1K race – about two city blocks – the same night as the town’s Christmas lighting. The foundation also hosts regular movie nights as a way to give back to the community that’s supported them since that fateful October morning.
They continue to give scholarships for those enrolling into undergraduate programs – forty have been awarded to date – but it’s their advocacy for organ and tissue donation that has become the hallmark of the CWF. Over three hundred people have signed up to become donors through the foundation.
Once a month, the CWF sends a basket of items to living donors, those on the waiting list, or donor recipients. The basket includes a card explaining the foundation along with a blanket, a notebook for medical information, and a water bottle. They also send a check for gas, meals, and hotels – additional expenses when traveling for medical care.
Just like Casey, the foundation’s reach has extended far beyond their hometown.
In Washington state, a sixteen year old waits for a kidney. He goes to school as much as possible, but being around other kids exposes him to lots of germs. Because his immune system is compromised, he gets sick easily, which then keeps him home from school. This proverbial catch twenty-two is common for children awaiting a kidney transplant.
As a result of being home so much, he plays a lot of XBox online with his friends. Due to use, his XBox recently broke. The CWF bought him a new one along with some of the latest games. It’s not their typical donation, but they saw a need and filled it.
The foundation learned of this young man through a mother in Forsyth, IL whose daughters, ages eight and twelve, are also awaiting kidney transplants.
“They go to school as often as they can, but they get sick. A common cold can put them in the hospital,” says Courtney. “The girls can’t share a bedroom for fear of cross-contamination.”
The oldest is on daily dialysis at home. Only one parent is able to work because the other provides care for the girls. In addition to in-home treatments, trips to St. Louis are made regularly for biopsies, tests, and checkups. Theirs hasn’t been an easy journey, and still, they frequently show up to CWF events to help.
“They know that by us spreading the word their kids have a better chance,” says Courtney. “To see what these little kids endure and they keep going…they’re tough. It puts your own problems into perspective.”
That’s saying a lot considering what led the Williams sisters to this work. What they’ve witnessed through meeting those on donor waiting lists combined with the desire to keep Casey’s memory alive continually motivates the CWF.
“I feel like we were closer than most siblings,” says Courtney. “With my son, I love him with all my heart, but it’s not a new feeling. That’s exactly how I felt for those two.”
Chelbi adds, “There is a quote in the book My Sister’s Keeper that states, ‘…without her, it’s hard to remember who I am.’ Courtney framed that for the three of us one year for Christmas. When Casey passed, we put that quote on her headstone. If that doesn’t sum up our relationship and the reason for the foundation, I don’t know what does.”
“We had a terrible situation,” says Courtney. “We took the one good thing and have clung to it. We can’t quit. It’s the work we’ll do for the rest of our lives.”
In Illinois, more than 5,000 people are awaiting a life-saving transplant; around 300 die each year due to available organ shortage. One person’s donation can give life to or improve quality of life for twenty-five people.
Those interested in registering for organ and tissue donation who live outside of Illinois may register on the national site, Donate Life.