Every year, Reneé Smith's family draws names for their Christmas gift exchange. It just so happened that in 2012, it was Reneé's turn to buy a gift for her sister-in-law Patti.
Patti was battling a recurrence of breast cancer that had spread to her bones and liver. Christmas would be different for everyone that year.
"The news was devastating for all of us," recalled Reneé.
Patti's loving and generous spirit was evident in her family relationships. She was a wonderful mom and aunt to her nieces and nephews, and a former preschool teacher who loved children. But she was also an introvert--a quiet person who struggled to come to terms with the fact she was dying.
"She was terrified of dying and leaving her kids and her husband," said Reneé.
Reneé Smith (right) and her mom, Rosalie Miller (left) surrounded Patti with love and support during chemotherapy treatments.
Reneé felt led to help Patti, but their personalities where so different, and she felt unsure of how best to help. She started by just showing up. They lived three hours apart, but Reneé made the trek to Ridgefield, Wash., from her home in Gig Harbor every other weekend to help take care of Patti.
Over time, Reneé's calling became clearer through three words she constantly felt impressed on her heart: "Love her extravagantly." With each chemo visit, the bond between the sisters-in-law grew. Eventually, Patti allowed Reneé to bathe her and care for her in intimate ways.
Reneé started a Facebook page called "Pray for Patti Peace" (Patti's last name is Peace) where friends and loved ones could stay updated on Patti's condition. The group had about 100 members who posted regular messages for Patti. It became a great source of encouragement during the dark days of cancer treatment.
As Christmas drew near, Reneé often thought about Patti's gift. "What do you get a dying person for Christmas?" she wondered.
One day, they were out shopping, surrounded by Christmas displays. They stopped at a table stacked with toys and Patti said to Reneé, "I don't want any presents this year. I'd rather just help kids."
That moment, Reneé had an idea. Rather than trying to find a gift that Patti wouldn't be able to use, Reneé decided to fulfill her sister-in-law's wish to help children.
Patti on Christmas morning, 2012, with stuffed animals that symbolized the gifts given in her name to transform the lives of children around the world.
World Concern's Global Gift Guide had arrived in the mail and Reneé scoured it for ideas. "I got so excited. I was seeing all these gifts to help children get an education and animals to help them earn income and feed themselves. I knew this would bless Patti's heart," she said.
Reneé and her husband had a set budget for gifts. "Then I thought, wouldn't it be neat if I had a whole lot more money? What if Patti could help a whole village? It dawned on me that she had all these Facebook followers on her page," said Reneé.
Not wanting to spoil the surprise by posting on the page, Reneé emailed everyone she had addresses for and asked if they wanted to participate. Within a few days, Reneé had received almost $500 for Patti's gift.
"It was just amazing to me. Even people who didn't know Patti, had not ever met her, wanted to show love to her in this way and let them know they cared," said Reneé. "I'm a church secretary and people would walk in the door and say, 'Here's $20 for Patti's animals,' or message me saying, 'I'm mailing in a check.'"
Reneé was able to give 40 chickens, 24 ducks, two goats, and two pigs (all with vaccinations, feed, and supplies) in Patti's name to help children living in places like rural Kenya, Myanmar, and Haiti.
She could hardly wait for Christmas. Reneé bought stuffed animals to symbolize each gift, and put a tag on each one with a note describing the impact of her gift, "In the name of Patti Peace, a child will receive ducklings, which will provide income and nutrition for years to come."
On Christmas morning, Patti opened each gift and read each tag aloud.
Reneé will never forget Patti's joy-filled response. "She looked up at me with tears rolling down her face and mouthed the words, 'thank you.'"
"It felt like the best gift anyone could give her," said Reneé.
Patti passed away in February, but Reneé and the entire family are comforted by the fact her memory will live on through the life-changing gifts given in her honor to children in need.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2014) on December 2. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll be featuring posts from InterAction partners and others all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation on Twitter via #GivingTuesday and learn more here. For more information about InterAction, visit here.