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How the Grinch made a Virginia boy smile: 'People showed up'

Posted at 11:02 AM, Mar 05, 2023

FALMOUTH, Va. — No one’s really sure how much Liam Jackson can see anymore because of the damage from a terminal brain disease.

But when the kindergartner and his family came home one recent afternoon and discovered their front yard in Falmouth had been turned into a replica of Whoville, Liam’s younger siblings started chattering about a certain character with a pointed red hat and long green fur.

“The Grinch, the real Grinch? Is he here?” Liam asked while still in the vehicle. “I need to see him now.”

His parents, Stephen and Madeline, held on to the 6-year-old’s hand as he gingerly walked by the Whoville Post Office and repeatedly opened the door of the wooden cutout labeled as the Grinch’s house.

More than 60 neighbors, staff from Falmouth Elementary School and members of the Stafford Sheriff’s Office, who showed up in a motorcade of motorcycles and cruisers with flashing blue lights, cheered and called out his name.

“We brought Whoville to you, Liam,” said Joni Moore Kanazawa, who directs the Fredericksburg-based organization Ellie’s Elves. Named for Ellie Blaine, who was 2 when she died of cancer, the volunteer group supports other children facing terminal diseases and their families.

Kanazawa organized the event after discovering Liam’s attachment to the Dr. Seuss character. While the rest of the world may find him as cuddly as a cactus, the Grinch is Liam’s favorite superhero because he saves Christmas, his mother said.

“You can’t convince him otherwise,” she said. “The other day he told me, besides Jesus who’s No. 1, the Grinch is No. 2.”

Capt. Lee Peters is with the Stafford Sheriff’s Office special operations and his work took on a slightly different twist when he donned the Grinch costume. A board member with Ellie’s Elves, he’s played Mickey Mouse as well — and said he really was hoping for something more along the lines of a Marvel superhero.

But as Kanazawa stressed, the whole point of the event was to provide a happy experience for Liam and his family, and Peters was glad to oblige.

“It’s all about making memories,” Kanazawa said. “While he still has vision, we’ll let Liam see this fuzzy character in colorful pants.”

Liam started kindergarten last fall and absolutely loves school, said Sallie Burch, principal of Falmouth Elementary School. She was dressed in green and looked elflike as part of the Whoville display.

Liam’s teacher, Audra Gulick, was at the Jackson home as well, along with other staff from the nearby school. Gulick said Liam brightens her day.

“He’s always like a light, a bright shining light,” she said. “He’s so easy to get along with and the kids love him.”

In late fall, a bus driver noticed that Liam was having trouble getting up and down the bus steps. She mentioned it to the school nurse and Gulick, who talked with Liam’s parents.

Tests began and the family got the news no parent wants, and it came on Liam’s sixth birthday in January. He has a genetic condition called cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, a disease in which the white matter of the brain is progressively damaged. Eventually, the nerves no longer relay information to the brain, causing all systems to shut down.

The Jacksons initially thought they’d have several more years, but Liam’s condition is deteriorating so rapidly, doctors don’t think he has that long, family members said. There is no treatment.

Ellie’s Elves, along with the staff at Falmouth Elementary School, have helped with meals and expenses for the Jacksons. Liam is their oldest; Stephanie is 4, Damon turns 3 soon and they’re expecting a fourth child in August.

The sudden news of Liam’s illness has devastated the family, said Charlene Taylor, Madeline Jackson’s sister. She’s also a hairdresser and one of her clients is Kimberly Anderson, a volunteer with Ellie’s Elves.

As the two talked during a hair appointment, Taylor mentioned Liam’s fondness for the Grinch. Anderson shared that detail with Kanazawa, and the wheels quickly began turning.

In 2015, Ellie’s Elves created the Whoville scene for Ryan Mott, who had brain cancer and was able to enjoy all things Grinch during his last Christmas. He died in 2016 at age 9.

Kanazawa didn’t want the wooden cutouts of the Whoville School and other building facades to be put in storage, so the volunteer group has used them to decorate floats during Christmas parades. They also let Susan and Ralph Cooper add them to their Christmas decorations on Ramoth Church Road.

Kanazawa borrowed them back from the Coopers for the decorating blitz. She asked Peters to help, then he asked a few fellow officers. He was expecting three or four but got more like 12.

“When word got around it was for a child, people showed up,” Peters said.

The Jacksons got permission from their homeowners association to keep the Christmas decorations for two weeks in late February and early March.

While Liam enjoyed the cutouts, the interaction with the Grinch was his favorite. Liam also was dressed in lime green Grinch pajamas and his little brother wore the costume of Max, the Grinch’s dog. The Jacksons had hoped to dress Stephanie like Cindy Lou Who but couldn’t find a costume so she wore something sparkly.

Liam giggled when the Grinch tucked Max under one arm and Stephanie under the other and pretended to run off with him. He grinned when the Grinch hid behind cutouts and peeked around the corner at him.

When the Grinch tickled Liam’s cheek with his long fingers, Liam said: “He has soft hands.” Someone else mentioned the Grinch needs to shave his knuckles and Liam responded in defense: “No he doesn’t.”

Liam’s mother struggled to find the words to thank everyone who showed up in her yard. She was on the way back from visiting relatives when she got caught behind the police motorcade.

“I thought, that’s for us,” she said, holding back tears. “I appreciate everyone, I mean, it was so overwhelming to see. And Liam loved it.”

In the words of Dr. Seuss, Kanazawa posted on Facebook after the event that “all our hearts grew three sizes today.”

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