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Girl on a mission

With an innate desire to help others, local 8-year-old directs her birthday gifts to patients at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center

Empathy is a complex emotional capacity. To get a good definition, you could ask neurologists, behavioral researchers or even evolutionary scientists. They all have theories. Or you could ask young Rylie, who is 8 years old and wise beyond her years.

In fact, in anticipation of Rylie turning 8 in November 2016, Rylie's mother Tara asked her what she wanted for her birthday.

“She said that she really didn’t need anything and that she would rather donate to a charity,” Tara said. “I was so proud of her.”

Just that much would make for a smile-inducing story but there is more to this tale. Rylie wanted to learn about the organizations she might choose to support. Still a few weeks short of actually turning 8, Rylie wanted to conduct due diligence research.

“We talked for days about which charity she would support,” Tara said. “I gave her lots of ideas and she would go to bed at night deliberating pros and cons of each one. When she woke up in the morning, she had questions. In each case, she wanted to know who was going to be helped and would her gift make a difference.”

Rylie found her answers when she met with Kayla Gagne, a Child Life Specialist at UMass Memorial Children’s Medical Center.

“We were struck by the fact that Rylie didn’t know any children who had been hospitalized or who had a serious medical condition. She just seemed to understand how she would feel if she was in that situation: lonely or scared, or just not feeling well,” said Gagne. “When we brought up the importance of small comforts such as stuffed animals, Rylie got that immediately.”

With that, Rylie’s research was complete—and she had a mission.

“Rylie has many stuffed animals of her own and she loves them all,” Tara said. “She has a favorite, though: a brown bear named Radar that she’s had since she was born.”

Understandably, Rylie thoroughly enjoyed picking out each of the animals herself.

“She had a blast doing that, imagining for each choice the different child who would receive it.”

In early December 2016, Rylie and Tara embodied Dr. Doolittle, arriving at the CMC toting a cartful of animals to be distributed to pediatric patients. Rylie didn’t want a lot of fanfare, however.

“Rylie is, by nature, a very shy child and she didn’t want the attention,” said Tara. “In fact, when someone told her that her picture and story would ‘make her famous,’ she worried about that briefly.”

Just a few minutes later, however, Rylie said that if her story might make other people to do something similar, that would be okay.

Although Rylie didn’t meet any of the children who received the stuffed animals, Tara did show her a photo of a little girl hugging the horse she had picked out.

“When she saw that little girl beaming, she was beyond happy.”

That is because empathy isn’t just feeling sad when another person is sad. It also means feeling happy when another person is happy. Rylie is very wise indeed.


For more information:

UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center

Child Life Program 

Above, from left: Child Life Specialist Kayla Gagne; UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center Physician-in-Chief Mary Lee; stuffed animal donor Rylie and her mother Tara.