HUNTERSVILLE – When Margi Kyle was 16 years old, a serious car accident in Michigan landed her in the hospital for a year.
“As a child in the hospital, it was scary,” she said. “There was no technology. I could look at the ceiling, but there was nothing to do. I thought, ‘God, I have a mind, but that’s about it.’”
Many years later, she looked on while her 15-year-old son, Alex, suffered a broken neck after a diving accident in Toronto, Canada and spent months bedridden in a hospital, as well.
Knowing the boredom and loneliness of a sterile medical existence firsthand, Kyle began the North Carolina chapter of Little Smiles out of her Cornelius home four years ago.
Founded in Florida in 1999, the nonprofit allows kids to escape the reality of injuries or illnesses by providing them with toys, computers, theme park or concert tickets and even access to celebrities.
“The goal is to make them feel like kids again, even if only for a few minutes, with pizza parties, tablets or tickets to a wrestling match,” Kyle said. “We work strictly through nurses. When the nurse calls and says she has a child here that’s really low and wants a Big Mac, we make it happen.”
And all it took was one heartfelt email from Angela Miller, a child life specialist at Novant Health Blume Pediatric Hematology & Oncology in Charlotte, to brighten the day of 17-year-old Torie Costa of Huntersville.
Although she’s endured numerous chemotherapy regimens since June 2012 for Rhabdomyosarcoma, a condition where cancerous tumors attached to her diaphragm, pelvis and collarbone, the Hough High graduate sought a coveted spot in November’s Miss North Carolina Teen USA pageant.
Kyle met with Torie and her mother, Marnae, about a week ago at a Starbucks in Huntersville to see if Little Smiles could help Torie achieve her dream.
“I told her with her personality, she didn’t need hair,” Kyle said. “She was absolutely the most beautiful heart I’d seen in a long time.”
Little Smiles helped the Costa family pay for Torie’s entry-fee into the competition, which takes place Nov. 8-9 in High Point. The pageant will judge young women ages 14-26 in swimsuit, interview and evening gown categories.
Torie grew up enjoying pageants on television, but she’s never competed in one.
“I always wanted to do it so badly, but the money’s never been there in my family to just fork over $4,000 for a pageant,” she said. “Now I have such a great platform to bring awareness to pediatric oncology.”
Marnae believes her daughter’s cancer diagnosis offered her an opportunity to discover who she was as an individual and gain real insight into the meaning of beauty and strength at a young age.
“She has an experience none of the other young ladies has,” Marnae said. “She was that young, beautiful girl with hair halfway down her back, and then she gets sick and within a month loses her hair. She was so, so brave.”
Paula Miles, executive director of the pageant, said young women who were physically handicapped or deaf have competed over the event’s 30-year history.
“These young women are just so remarkable, they have a strength about them that maybe the average young woman may not in their life because they’ve had to face some struggles,” Miles said. “I’m really looking forward to having Torie compete and meeting her. We couldn’t be more honored that she’s chosen us.”
In between taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College, working part-time at The Elements 4 Life home and garden store in Davidson and undergoing chemo treatments each Tuesday, Torie’s planned the look of her evening gown, which will be covered in sequins.
“I’m just going to work on presenting myself in the best way possible,” she said. “I don’t want it to be a pity party, so I don’t really want to focus on the fact that I was sick. I want to focus on changing this, on bringing awareness.”
In the future, she might pursue a career in graphic design. But she’s certain that she’ll start a nonprofit to work on behalf of children battling cancer.
“I was so superficial, being all about my hair,” Torie said of her old life. “And it was all stripped from me. I lost my hair, my eyelashes. And now I know beauty is from the inside. I know that now having lived it.”
Want to get involved with Little Smiles?
Contact Margi Kyle at email@example.com or 704-896-5693.