When Samantha looked into their eyes, tears came to hers. She never dreamed she'd be meeting these children in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. That she would look into their beautiful, brown faces, and see the pale skin and blue eyes of another child-- her own.
Her heart burst with love and loss. The children in front of her were alive. Her daughter is not. But it was Rachel's birthday wish that brought her here.
Five years ago, Rachel Beckwith heard about "charity: water" at her church. The organization raises money to establish water wells in developing countries. Rachel couldn't believe kids' lives could be threatened -- sometimes lost -- because they simply didn't have clean water.
So for her birthday, Rachel told her mom she didn't want gifts. She asked everyone to donate money to "charity: water" instead-- $300 was her goal.
On June 12, 2011 Rachel turned nine. She was about $80 short, but she was still smiling. She told her mom there'd always be next year.
Only there wasn't.
Six weeks later, Rachel was riding in a car on I-90. There was a 13-car pileup.
Rachel's little sister and her mom, Samantha, were OK. Rachel was rushed to the hospital with severe injuries.
Days were filled with prayers, but God didn't answer them, not the way Rachel's family wanted.
News spread about the little girl who had -- three times -- grown and cut her hair for Locks of Love. About the Christmas gifts she forfeited to "adopt" other families during the holidays. About her $300 birthday wish for "charity: water."
Donations started pouring in from around the world. Friends, family, strangers dug deep and gave more than $1.2 million.
Rachel's huge heart inspired them. But days later, it stopped beating.
"I still miss the way her cheeks smell," Samantha told me recently. "The texture of her hair when you brush it in the morning. Just the little things that you might not really realize until they're gone."
Rachel's been gone for five years now, but not entirely.
Samantha sees her daughter in the playfulness and kindness of these kids in Tigray. The sweet faces bearing smiles and eating popcorn are some of the 37,000 people in Ethiopia who now have clean water because of the donations Rachel inspired.
Samantha met mothers there whose children died because of contaminated water. As she looked around, she saw kids saved because of her daughter.
"I feel like this has maybe been a way to soften it for me, as much as it can," Samantha said.
She still aches for the scent of those pale, little cheeks. But now she can cherish the smiles on these dark ones.
"It gives me some comfort and peace," Samantha said.
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