WESTFORD -- Taylor Leong's mother Laura Goodman likes to think of her daughter as "an old soul."
Leong, 15, is a freshman at Lawrence Academy in Groton and at the tender age of 6, she learned the meaning of loss and heartbreak. Leong's best friend, Erika Gould, died as a 7-year-old after battling brain cancer for most of her short life in Westford. Goodman said it was devastating to her family, and for Leong, who needed to learn as a youngster what it means when someone passes away.
"It's supposed to be that your grandparents die, and then your parents," Goodman said. "Not that your best friend as a child is gone."
Gould died just before Thanksgiving and Leong quickly went into action in an attempt to heal herself and others around her. She asked her mother to help her travel around to local hospitals to help sickly children at Christmas time. She worked to hand out gifts too ill to enjoy the holiday season.
Nine years later, Leong continues to keep up her efforts and has expanded her donation project to help all disadvantaged children across the state. She recruits the help of local schools and hospitals to collect toys and then hosts parties and hosts deliveries to shelters and hospital across Massachusetts to share the donations.
On Thursday, Leong worked to hand out dozens of gifts to foster children and families from Lowell and Tewksbury homeless shelters. She even walked them through a homemade carnival she designed.
"I feel like it's amazing to be able to help these kids have a successful and happy holiday season and I know many of them are either in the hospitals where they're feeling uncomfortable, or in the shelters where they're in a rough financial state," she said. "Just being able to throw a party or to make sure they have gifts for Christmas morning issa great feeling."
On Sunday, Leong worked to help more families at Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton. She also recruited services from 20 high school volunteers from Lawrence Academy to host the event
Goodman estimates in the last nine years, her daughter has delivered 7,500 gifts and raised more than $200,000 for her cause. The family is now working to build their project into an official nonprofit group called"For the Love of Erika." Goodman explained their plans were halted though due to the recent government shutdown. She said she is extremely proud of her daughter for all of her generosity and philanthropic endeavors.
"I think her heart is that much bigger as a result of the trauma she's been through," Goodman said. "She's hoping to inspire others."
For more information, visit the "For the Love of Erika" Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/For-The-Love-of-Erika/185838138124648.
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