Readers' Mother's Day offerings to a selfless mom

For a mom who adopted a young woman with severe health issues, reader donations pour in

Dayna Bennett was too busy tending to her adopted daughter Shellie last Saturday to read my column about them.

But Bennett's mother read it, then checked Dayna's online fundraising site and realized that hundreds of Los Angeles Times readers had donated thousands of dollars to help buy the van she needs to transport Shellie, who, at 22, is medically fragile and can't use her arms or legs.

The day the column ran, more than $30,000 was pledged; by Friday more than 500 people had donated a total of more than $50,000. "People were so gracious and so generous, it's hard to believe," said Angela Bennett, Dayna's mom.

They are shopping now for a van that can accommodate Shellie's wheelchair and medical apparatus.

But just as important as the money were the messages readers posted — sharing their own stories and encouraging Dayna and Shellie.

On Sunday, Angela printed out those comments and fashioned them into a book. That was her Mother's Day gift to her daughter.

"Dayna has a tough life," Angela told me Friday, pausing as she tried not to cry.

"She loves Shellie tremendously, but it's not easy taking care of her day after day. This will be something she can turn to and read on days that are particularly hard."

Many of the notes were from parents sharing stories of their own special-needs children. Others were from readers paying tribute to their mothers, daughters, sisters. And a few were from former foster children — like Shellie — expressing gratitude.

"You are an Angel walking amongst us all," wrote one woman who donated $100. "I am a former foster child and it is the angels in our world who make all the difference for generations to come. I have had angels in my life and I owe them everything."

The notes from strangers buoyed her family's spirits, Angela said. "You hear so much bad news all the time, it's easy to think that everything's wrong and nobody cares.

"But when I started reading all those words of encouragement and affirmation from people who don't even know Shellie and Dayna, you could feel the connection," she said.

"To have people rally around them to help … that changes the way you see the world."

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As reporters, we learn through experience that sad stories can touch hearts — and generate contributions from readers who want to help.

It's a great feeling to know that someone's life might be a little bit better because of something you wrote.

But it's also an uncomfortable feeling to single out one person or one cause, when there are so many struggling people and so much unseen need.

I wrote about Dayna Bennett because her life became for me what those strangers' donations and notes have become for her family:

A reminder of the goodness all around us, in ordinary people. I'm awed by Dayna's selflessness — and I'm also amazed by the way readers responded.

A special education teacher, Dayna met Shellie eight years ago when, as a 14-year-old, she joined her class. The girl had no family, lived in a group home and had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, a seizure disorder and faulty vision and hearing. She sat in class strapped into a wheelchair, her head slumped onto her chest.

Dayna already had adopted three children from foster care, but felt drawn to the unsmiling girl whose only word was "mama." So when her older children began to move out, she moved Shellie in and the adoption process began.

When I met Shellie last week, I saw a young woman with the mind of a toddler, the inability to meet her most basic needs, and a raft of medical issues.

Dayna, 37, sees a daughter who loves music, princess stories, sparkly sneakers and pink ribbons in her hair; a once-neglected child who has blossomed because her "mama" recognizes she's more than a collection of disabilities.

"That's always been Dayna's gift," her mother told me. "She can look inside somebody and see potential that nobody else sees or thinks about.

"People the world will give up on, she seeks them out. She loves them unconditionally and wholeheartedly."

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Dayna has been writing thank-you messages all week.

"I'm amazed," she said. "I'm overwhelmed. I'm so grateful that people were willing to help, I want them to know what this means to me and Shellie."

She's been reading the messages from donors to Shellie, who at 22 has the understanding and exuberance of a 2-year-old.

"We have read every single note out loud together," Dayna said. "And when I write the thank-you notes, I tell her what I'm saying. She knows what's going on."

Shellie wants the van — ban-ban she calls it — to be pink and glittery. Dayna promised to put a Minnie Mouse sticker on it instead.

And Shellie was so delighted by her favorite message — which featured the story of a princess "like Sleeping Beauty, but awakened by a kiss from a mother, instead of a prince" — that Dayna had to read it to her again and again.

The author of that post called her $200 gift "a donation for Mother's Day in memory of my wonderful mom."

A wonderful mom tends to leave a lasting legacy. Dayna's story reminds me of how important that can be.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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