‘A great deal of happiness’: Remember, there’s a lot more to life than elections

November 4, 2019 12:01 am

Dallas Vanover, left, assists staff of The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU northside campus unpack gifts for the hospital’s residents. (Bob Lewis/ for the Virginia Mercury)

Tomorrow, the 2019 campaign comes to its merciful and overdue end. There’s little new to say on election eve, and who isn’t bone-weary of politics by now. So allow me today to share something rarely found the past few months: a story about a young man who responded to his own adversity by putting others’ needs first.


It had been the most terrifying day of Dallas Vanover’s young life. He lay in an emergency room in Roanoke, Virginia, having fractured back vertebrae in a 12-foot fall down a sheer embankment during a Boy Scout hike in southwestern Virginia. Emergency room medics had carefully cut away his clothing to avoid movement that might aggravate his injury, so there he lay, without even the shirt on his back.

What goes through the mind of a traumatized 14-year-old boy as concerned doctors and nurses confer and scurry about? Dallas thought of kids who had it worse; kids whose entire childhoods are lived in hospitals. That’s when his plan began to take shape.

Angels had been on his shoulder that afternoon. Literally. A group of nurses hiking a short distance behind the Scouts saw Dallas fall. They inched down the ravine to administer what aid they could until emergency medics arrived, placed him on a backboard, hiked him back through the rugged mountain terrain to a clearing in the woods large enough for a helicopter to land and whisk him to Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

“I remember that one of the nurses was named Angel,” Dallas said. “And the helicopter was Angel Flight.”

Dallas was lucky. Had the terrain on which he fell or his angle of impact been a few degrees different, the prognosis might have been much darker. Released after three days, Ric and DeAnna Vanover took their son home to Chesterfield County. The broken vertebrae did not damage his spinal cord and he would recover fully. But he would not forget the experience or his commitment that good would somehow come of it.

He quickly resumed Scouting, a passion since his first Cub Scouts meeting, Ric Vanover said. “He was just born for it.”

Dallas ascended the ranks quickly and with purpose. By 2017, it was time to embark on Scouting’s capstone achievement: Eagle Scout. According to Scouting Magazine, only 2 percent of Scouts have become Eagle Scouts since Scouting began in 1912. Candidates undertake a regimen that typically takes 18 months to two years and requires that they earn multiple merit badges, show leadership in the troop and plan and execute a service project. President Gerald R. Ford, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, were Eagle Scouts.

The children Dallas had wondered about during his hospitalization never left his mind, but now they had identities and an address. They are long term residents at the The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU campus in Richmond’s north side. It’s home to more than 45, ranging from infants through age 20 who require close and specialized round-the-clock care. About a third are on respirators and most have limited mobility, said Sarah Irby, director of community relations for the Children’s Hospital Foundation.

“They come here basically with the clothes on their back,” she said, noting that their families aren’t financially able to care for them at home. Medicaid covers each patient at the Richmond northside campus.

“Volunteers and staff members work with them. Some are non-verbal and the only way to get through to them is with things they can feel, things that comfort them,” Irby said.

Their wishes were no secret: they were on an Amazon wish list. Dallas decided to purchase every item, undeterred by costs approaching $5,000. Raising the money, buying the gifts and delivering them became his Eagle Scout project. And more.

“I wanted to make sure that kids had a better time (in the hospital) than I did, so that’s when it turned from just being an Eagle project to helping the kids in the hospital as much as possible,” he said.

Dallas Vanover unpacks one of the gifts he purchased for the residents of The Children’s Hospital of Richmond of VCU’s northside campus. (Bob Lewis/ for the Virginia Mercury)

It was an outside-the-box idea that didn’t fit traditional notions of an Eagle Scout project.

“There definitely was some pushback,” Dallas said. “Some people on the board who decide whether an Eagle project is good … had concerns like ‘Oh, this just seems like a fundraiser project and those don’t go well.’”

His Eagle Scout adviser helped him address the concerns and, when he presented it a month later, the board approved it.

He launched a Krispy Kreme doughnut campaign, enlisting DeAnna and Ric to spread the word among colleagues at work. He launched a GoFundMe page. Dollar by dollar, week by week, little by little the total grew.

On a balmy mid-September afternoon, the glass doors to the Children’s Hospital administrative building opened and Irby greeted the Vanovers. Similar gift drives for the patients usually yielded an armload or two. This would require a utility cart.

Boxes were stacked precariously high on the cart as it trundled through hallways to an activity room where the gifts were unpacked. Soon, all the available table space was covered by books, movie DVDs, various toys, restaurant gift cards for the rare dinner out, comforters, massagers, weighted blankets and even homemade sun-catchers and other goods.

A quick inventory confirmed that every item on the list was there, secured by a Monacan High School junior. All in, gifts plus expenses topped $5,000.

After a time, DeAnna and Ric stood back and relished watching Dallas help the staff arrange the gifts. The pride showed in the tears that brimmed in Deanna’s eyes as she watched her son complete an act of amazing grace, conceived in his most vulnerable moment.

Then it was time to leave.

“I felt a great deal of happiness just now,” Dallas said. “I saw all the nurses very happy to see everything and I knew that it would all go to good use.”

Clarification: This post has been edited to more accurately characterize the length of stay of patients at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond.

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @BobLewisOfRVA.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]