By Sharon Mager
PORT DEPOSIT, Md.—Pleasant View Baptist Church Member Amber Stewart began “Candy Cane Kids” in 2010 with a simple mission: “to heal the broken with the help of Jesus Christ.” Each year, Stewart, with the help and financial support of her family, church and others, provides wrapped Christmas presents along with Bibles and a written guide to the plan of salvation to children in difficult situations. Through the ministry the first year, Stewart gave 200 gifts to children in foster care. Since that time over 1,500 children have been blessed by the ministry. Pleasant View Church is teaming up with “Candy Cane Kids” this year to help provide more gifts.
According to most doctors, Amber Stewart should not have lived past the age of two. Stewart was diagnosed with Infantile Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) that took her sister Lindsey’s life at six months old. Like Lindsey, doctors told the Stewarts to love and care for her, but that the longest she could probably live would be about two years. But God had other plans for Amber who is now 23.
Her mother, Alice said after her first daughter died, she and her husband, Mathew, did not plan to have more children, but God surprised them with a healthy son, Matt. Later, Amber was born and from the beginning seemed healthy, but within six months began showing signs that something was wrong and was diagnosed with the dreaded disease.
“I spent a large portion of my childhood in the hospital; I survived many nights where doctors still today don’t understand how I made it. I saw angels, I talked to God. At the age of seven my parents went out of town on their first vacation since I was born. While they were away, I stopped breathing. I was air lifted to A.I. DuPont. After an hour of CPR, I was given a tracheostomy. Physicians said I wouldn’t be able to talk with a “trache.” I was speaking before I left the hospital. Doctors also said I’d be ventilator dependent, but I was able to breathe on my own for four more years. I defied every man-made expiration date by the grace of God,” says Amber.
“She has astounded the doctors,” Alice said. Even recently doctors insisted on further testing because they just have trouble believing Amber had type 1 SMA. The tests confirm the diagnosis.
The family recently returned to live in Maryland after being in North Carolina for 12 years. Alice said they went to Johns Hopkins to see SMA specialist Thomas Crawford.
Alice said the family was amazed when Crawford said he knew them. “He said, ‘I know all about you and your family. I knew your sister.’” Crawford was working in the laboratory when Lindsey was born. He had compassion for the baby and wanted to learn more about the disease in an effort to help victims. In fact, Dr. Crawford specialized in treatment of SMA as a result of Lindsey’s illness.
“He really had a desire to help children,” Alice said. “It is neat to see how God has brought it all full circle,” Alice said.
“Amber is one of the oldest and most functional victims he’s ever seen.” Alice said. Amber is completely dependent but uses her thumb to operate her phone and computer. She will graduate soon with two associate degrees.
“God has given me so much joy, and I love living life to the fullest. I am an independent college student who loves to have fun and point to Jesus Christ wherever I go because without Him I am nothing. Life is so much better with Him.”
Amber accepted Christ when she was eight years old. Alice said, “We came home from church and she said, ‘I need to be saved. I don’t want to die and go to hell.’” She knew she was a sinner and needed Jesus.
“She laughs and says she’s the first Baptist ever sprinkled. She couldn’t go under water because she had the ‘trache.’”
Though the family always helped people at Christmas, Alice said in 2009 Amber began to feel a strong burden to help children in crisis, especially those who are disabled. So many churches struggle with how to minister to the disabled and many disabled children are left out. She started Candy Cane Kids to help address that issue.
While they have been very successful in gift distribution, Alice said Amber wanted to have more corporate sponsorship, but many would not partner unless Amber “watered down the Gospel.”
“She won’t give presents without her testimony. She would lose the ministry part of it. Every year we struggle with finding where she can be used. Her heart’s desire is to help disabled children, but we want to follow where Jesus leads us,” Alice said.
Alice said that while Amber has challenges, she is happy. “I’m sure if she had a choice to walk and be healthy, she would choose that but she is happy in her own skin. She’s just a beautiful girl inside and out. She says, ‘I’m happy being who I am. I wouldn’t change who I am.’”
Read more of Amber’s story here.