Community Stories

Teen’s Legacy Lives on at Grace Lutheran

Earlier this year, Gabriella Shipman, a sixth grader at Grace Lutheran, wrote an essay about using her talents to serve others.

“I do all I can to love and serve others as God has loved and served me,” Gabriella wrote. “I go through my shoes, toys, and clothes, items others don’t have an opportunity to have, so that I can donate them to charities. My goal is to cheer people up when they are sad so that they can see God’s light and love for them.”

That essay won Gabriella a scholarship that will pay for several months of tuition—a scholarship that exists because of the life and all-too-early death of one, much loved Grace Lutheran alum, Charlie Peebles.

Bad, Horrible News

The text came from upstairs. “I need help. I need ibuprofen.”

Charlie Peebles, 13, sent the message to his mother, Cyndi, who was downstairs. Charlie had fallen, losing control over the left side of his body. Cyndi called 911 and waited for an ambulance to take her son to Crestwood Hospital.

Crestwood doctors found a brain hemorrhage—a blood vessel had burst open—stemming from a blood clot the size of a racquetball.

Charlie was airlifted to Children’s Hospital of Alabama in Birmingham where he stayed for more than a month going through tests, treatments and physical therapy. The day he was supposed to be discharged, doctors wanted to err on the side of caution and do one more test. That’s when they found the real cause of Charlie’s troubles—brain lesions that weren’t visible until the hemorrhage went down.

Doctors rushed Charlie into surgery to biopsy the lesions, just to be sure. When the final results came back, it was bad news. Charlie had glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most aggressive types of cancer, and it had spread from his brain to his spinal column.

Michael and Cyndi took their son back home to rest and recover for two weeks until he was scheduled to return to Birmingham for chemo therapy and radiation. During that time, Charlie’s health went downhill fast.

“It was obvious the cancer was multiplying pretty quickly because it was getting to a point where he was less and less able to communicate or move like he could before,” Michael said.

The family drove back to Birmingham on March 24 for Charlie’s first day of chemotherapy. During the extended hospital stays, the family stayed at the Ronald McDonald house near the Children’s Hospital of Alabama. Charlie’s sister, Anna, slept on the floor beneath her brother’s bed. She was born 20 months after Charlie, but from the very beginning, they were best friends, Michael said.

One night, Michael noticed his son’s breathing was labored, but later, he woke up and realized he couldn’t hear Charlie breathing at all. Cyndi called 911, and dispatchers talked Michael through CPR until an ambulance could get there. Paramedics rushed Charlie to the hospital, but they were unable to resuscitate him. Charlie died on March 25, 2011, leaving behind a legacy that changed the course of countless lives.

Who Was Charlie?

From an early age, teachers at Grace Lutheran noticed Charlie. He won the Christ-like Heart award, one of the highest honors for the school, in elementary school.

“Of course we’re a little bit biased, I suppose, but we always just thought Charlie was something special; and really, everyone around him did, too,” Michael said.

Charlie was known for his calming nature and ability to diffuse tense situations—a natural peacemaker. He thought of all his classmates as his friends, and that feeling was mutual.

When he went into the hospital, the Grace Lutheran basketball team Charlie played on started writing his jersey number, 40, on their arms during games. That number became a rallying cry for his support system. Now, the school has retired his number with his final jersey hanging in the front of the school, Michael said. 

Continuing the Legacy

Before Charlie died, family friends held a fundraising dinner to help cover his medical bills. They raised $15,000. Michael works for the United States Army and has good health insurance that covered most of the out-of-pocket costs, so Michael and Cyndi decided to offer a scholarship to students at Grace Lutheran.

The year before Charlie died, Grace Lutheran School adopted a vision of “leadership, discipleship, and innovative thinking for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.” Michael said he wanted to include that criteria in the requirements to win the scholarship.

Since 2011, a committee including the principal of Grace Lutheran School, Michael and Cyndi Peebles and pastors at Ascension Lutheran Church where the Peebles worship have chosen four scholarship winners through an essay contest.

The scholarship Gabriella won is just part of Charlie’s legacy.

One of Charlie’s classmates is at the University of Alabama in Birmingham studying physical therapy after seeing what Charlie went through in the hospital. His sister, Anna, is heading to college next year to study either physical therapy or grief counseling.

“She’s definitely looking for a way to use some of her experiences to help people,” Michael said.

Although he only lived for 13 short years, Charlie Peebles will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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