Great-grandfather, terminally ill baby meet (Video)

Harry Gillespie, who lives in Vicksburg, met his youngest great- granddaughter, Gwendolyn Strong, who lives in California, Thursday.
 
It was an unlikely event, but not because Gillespie is 104. It’s because Gwendolyn struggles with spinal muscular atrophy, a neurological disease that inhibits the 21-month-old’s use of her muscles.
 
“The baby was fighting for her life like nobody else did,” Gillespie said. “It sure is proof our prayers were answered.”
 
He scrambled to the door to see Gwendolyn when she arrived at the home of Gillespie and his wife, Edna Earl Whitaker, on Confederate Avenue.
 
“Isn’t this exciting. I’m trembling,” said Gillespie while watching his granddaughter, Victoria, and her husband, Bill, put their fragile child into her stroller.
 
Gillespie said he had been eager to see Gwendolyn since she was diagnosed at 6 months. She’s not expected to live past 2.
 
Once he saw her, Gillespie’s “baby kitten” quickly became a “little doll” who smiled when he gave her “an old man kiss,” as Gillespie called it.
 
She would not take her eyes off him after that.
 
“This is old granddaddy,” Gillespie said to Gwendolyn. “What do you think about this old man?”
 
After hearing Gillespie sing “Happy Birthday” to Gwendolyn, whose birthday is Oct. 4, and shedding a few tears, the family went to the Vicksburg Rotary Club’s Thursday noon meeting. Gillespie is the club’s oldest member.
 
He said seeing his great-granddaughter and the Rotary meeting was all he could handle for the day.
 
“Remember, I’m 104,” he said.
 
To visit Gillespie was only one reason for the 5,000-mile trip from Santa Barbara. The family has raised almost $32,000 and awareness for SMA research through Sponsor-A-Mile for the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation.
 
Their goal is $50,000.
 
“We were floored by all the support. Everyone is so enthusiastic about our efforts,” said Victoria.
 
On the way to Vicksburg, the Strongs stopped in Gillespie’s birthplace, Palestine, Texas, where people handed them cash as they strolled through town, Victoria said.
 
The family also went walking in Sedona, Ariz., visited family friends in Las Vegas and listened to guitar music in Santa Fe, N.M.
 
Victoria said Ameristar Casino in Vicksburg donated $1,000 Thursday and will provide RV accommodations and meals during the five-day visit.
 
Along with the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, the Strongs, both 32, started PetitionToCureSMA.com to get more funding for SMA research. More than 500 Mississippians have placed
their signatures on the petition — about 65,000 nationwide.
 
SMA affects about one in 6,000 babies, and one in about 40 people carries the gene without knowing.
 
The National Institutes of Health is closer to finding a treatment for SMA than for some 600 other neurological disorders, Victoria said.
 
After Gwendolyn was diagnosed, her mom quit her job as a middle school English and history teacher to spend more time with her. Her father began working from home. He is a certified public accountant.
 


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