'A heart for kids'

A paralyzing health condition didn't keep a 19-year-old Hickory resident from giving to others.

Amber Stewart, who has spinal muscular atrophy since birth, decided she wanted to help children by giving them Christmas presents they might not otherwise receive. Her project started off with the idea to give to patients at Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem, but plans changed. Catawba County Department of Social Services became the recipients of Stewart's gifts.

"I wanted it to be real special," said Stewart, who is a Catawba Valley Community College student. "It's really awesome."

Stewart started wrapping the gifts and organizing them by gender and age group at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Her mission wasn't complete until 2 a.m.

Thursday, and the gifts were delivered to the social services office by four vehicles Thursday afternoon.

As at least a dozen social services workers and Stewart's family members brought in armfuls of gifts for needy children, the numerous tables in a conference room quickly filled. Gifts started to overflow to the floor to ensure every gift had a place.

"It's hard for us to see families go with out," said Sarah Shumate, social work supervisor.

Because of the gifts Stewart donated, 190 children will receive gifts this holiday season. The children are chosen by the depth of their need, Shumate said. Gifts will be delivered to families from now through Dec. 24, at the latest.

Stewart, along with her parents Matthew and Alice, has always helped a charity during the holiday season. But this project, by far, was the family's largest. They raised $2,000 from various donations and contributed $2,000 of their money to purchase gifts. Matthew said Stewart and Alice shopped for sales and received assistance from Kohl's to purchase items at a discount. All of the gifts were purchased within three weeks of setting out on the mission.

"Amber has always had a heart for kids," Matthew said. "She spent over six months in the hospital ... a lot of that time was during Christmas."

Matthew said Stewart usually participates in the Angel Tree project, but this year, she felt a "real burden" to help in a different way.

"We hope (this project) grows from Catawba (County)," Matthew said.
Alice hopes her daughter's influence rubs off and other residents decide to help people in need.

"It helps us realize if she can do this, there's a lot of able-body people who can do it, too," Alice said.

Stewart is working on a website for her fundraising efforts to help children in need. Meanwhile, find her on Facebook by searching for Amber Stewart.