words: Marla Cantrell
Images:courtesy Allie Wilson and Mandie Stewart
It’s one of those extraordinary winter afternoons in the South, the temperatures soaring past seventy degrees, the wind soft as a kitten. At Creekmore Park in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the playground is filling up with children. A man wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans walks a black-and-white St. Bernard in a loop around the perimeter of the park, the mammoth dog loping along beside him. Two games are underway on the tennis courts, the players’ rackets swooshing as they slice the air. And in the midst of it all is Elli Montgomery, four years old, her blond hair tied up in a bow, tiny gold earrings in her tiny earlobes, her child-sized glasses rimmed in pink.
If she wasn’t carrying a cane, you might not realize the extent of her sight problems. But she does carry the cane, almost like a habit, tapping the earth as she hurries to Allie Wilson’s side. Allie, at twenty-two years old, is one of Elli’s closest friends, and when she reaches her, Allie bends down for a hug.
“Let’s go play!” Elli says. And Allie does her best to slow Elli down. “Tell them about your birthday party,” Allie says, and Elli answers, “Elsa and Cinderella were there. And I became a real princess!”
It’s all true. Elli Montgomery was crowned at her birthday party in November of last year. Characters playing Queen Elsa (who came to fame in the Disney movie Frozen) and Cinderella made the designation official, and then they sang to her, on stage, and then placed a crown on her head. Down below, Elli’s family and friends, along with a trove of University of Arkansas-Fort Smith Delta Gamma members, cheered as the coronation took place.
The party was held at the Latture Conference Center at UAFS, just weeks after Allie and Elli were introduced at a local restaurant. The meeting had been set up after Allie had decided she and her sorority sisters needed to connect with someone who was visually impaired.
At the time, Allie’s role at Delta Gamma – Eta Omicron chapter was to help lead the drive to raise money for schools for the blind through their charity, Service for Sight. Allie felt as if there was more she and her seventy or so sorority sisters could do.
When Allie met Elli, she fell hard. “She’s so spunky. I said, ‘You must be Elli,’ and she said, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ She was so loving. I knew she wasn’t an ordinary little kid. She bosses everybody around.” Allie laughs. “She has this attitude of ‘I am who I am, and I can do whatever I put my mind to.’”
But when Elli and her family were getting ready to leave, Allie watched as Elli’s parents took off her prescription glasses, put on regular sunglasses and a hat, and made sure Elli had her cane. “Elli has light sensitivity, so even though her eyeglasses darken somewhat, it wasn’t enough,” Allie says. “It hit me that because of her light sensitivity, she could not see outside.”
As soon as Allie got to her car, she started calling, telling those closest to her about Elli. One of those calls led to Dr. Claire Price, a local ophthalmologist, who graciously offered to donate a pair of prescription sunglasses.
Allie remembers the day the glasses were ready. She and her sorority sister, Chelsea Smith, showed up for the fitting. Dr. Price carefully adjusted the dark glasses with the blue frames, as Elli’s entourage looked on.
At that moment, Elli’s mom, Andria, was hoping for some big, happy unveiling. “In the office, we asked her if she could see and she said no.” Andria’s heart dropped. “But the second we stepped outside, she said, ‘I can see! I can see! Look, Mommy, the clouds!’ And the glasses do this thing where if she’s in the car and the sun is shining on the windshield, she sees little rainbows. She’ll say, ‘Look, Mommy, I made a rainbow!’”
You could argue that Elli makes rainbows wherever she goes. As Andria talks about her daughter on this day at this park in Fort Smith, Elli is surrounded by Allie and two other Delta Gammas, Emily Mills, who plans to become a teacher, and Allie Billups, who’s studying dental hygiene. All three say that meeting Elli was a pivotal moment in their lives.
They could say more, but Elli is urging them toward the playground. She doesn’t want to miss one minute of this gorgeous day. “Come on!” she says, and Allie Wilson laughs. “Are we your girls?” Allie asks. And Elli shakes her head yes. “She always calls us all her girls,” Allie says.
And they are. Since meeting Elli, the sorority takes her on play dates. They took her to homecoming last year and gave her a Delta Gamma outfit to wear. And of course, there was the princess-themed birthday party, complete with a red carpet, balloon columns, cupcakes, and cookies with her name on them. There were even flowers decorating the backs of the chairs, all donated by good-hearted people in the community.
Andria watches as these young women scoop up her daughter and head toward the swings and slides and trails. She’s holding Elli’s younger brother, James, and she is smiling.
When she talks about Elli’s life, she goes back to the very beginning. Elli was born on the same day a 5.6 magnitude earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in the state, rattled Oklahoma. The epicenter was in Sparks, a town of approximately 170 people, situated not far from Oklahoma City. But even 175 miles away in Poteau, where Elli was being introduced to the world, folks could feel the foundation of everything that was usually unmovable shift and tremble.
For Andria, the quake would become a source of hope. In the minutes that followed her first child’s birth, she’d expected to be marveling at the miracle of this new life, to be counting fingers and toes in that universal way of all new moms. But as Andria surveyed Elli, she knew something was amiss. “I had worked in OB, and I had seen newborn babies, and I knew their eyes were different, but you could just see that this was more than that,” Andria says. She wondered aloud if Elli might be blind. The staff stepped in, and soon after they brought the news to Andria and her husband, Brad. Elli had glaucoma in both eyes, and cataracts.
The report sent Brad to the hospital’s chapel, where he dropped to his knees and prayed fervently for a sign that his daughter would be all right. When he got up, he put his hand on the Bible, opened it, and found Matthew 11:5 “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
“We felt like the earthquake was a sign from God,” Andria says. “God shook the earth for her to show us He could save her sight.”
What followed was a series of surgeries, including removing the cataracts, and cornea transplants. There was even a time when an infection could have caused one of her eyes to be removed. “But without having that promise from God,” Andria says, “it would have been so much scarier. On the night she was born, our pastor was there, and we dedicated her to the Lord.”
A few yards away, Elli and her friends from Delta Gamma are laughing, the sound silvery in the fading afternoon. “She doesn’t meet a stranger,” Andria says, and her smile widens. “She makes friends everywhere she goes.”
Allie, who’s studying marketing and will graduate this year, is already making plans to stay in touch with Elli. The other girls have ideas of their own. They want to carry on what Allie started.
It’s something Andria wants as well. “I just love the positive impact of having girls that are actually doing something with their lives, and going to college and excelling,” she says. “Having that influence really means a lot to me.”
For Allie, it’s an honor. “Elli feels like she’s mine; she captured my heart. We want her to fulfill her dreams,” she says. “And one day we want her to be a Delta Gamma. We’re her biggest cheerleaders.”
Andria marvels at this. Her daughter has already found a place to belong, and a group of young women who plan to be the best role models they can. She wants them to know how grateful she is that they see in Elli what she sees: a girl with infinite possibilities that are only just now beginning to unfold.
For more on Service for Sight, visit deltagamma.org/foundation/philanthropy-service.