The heart of an 8-year-old Conestee boy will likely beat in another child’s chest after an evening that began with a Thanksgiving dinner and ended with a fatal car accident.
Christian Lopez, a first-grader at Blythe Academy of Languages, died on Thanksgiving Day after being struck by a car Tuesday night as he left a church celebration with his family. He had been airlifted to Greenville Memorial Hospital.
His grandparents, who are also his guardians, opted to donate his organs, a decision that many who knew Christian said is a fitting legacy for a child who found joy in giving what he had to offer, despite having a rough start in his young life.
Earlier this year, he had moved to Conestee from Knoxville along with his three siblings and grandparents, who have long had custody of the children after a difficult early life, said Cheryl Ridge, their grandmother.
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The younger children began attending Blythe Academy in Greenville, and the family found a community in Victory Baptist Church, just across four-lane Conestee Road.
There, Christian took a particular shine to youth pastor Justin Burns. On a day of appreciation for Burns, the boy offered him candles and some trinkets, items he had gotten in Mauldin with this grandmother for the occasion.
Finances were tight for the family, Burns knew, and he hated that they had spent money on the gifts, but an irrepressible smile crossed the boy’s face as he offered them.
“I could see like the pride in his eyes, like he was doing something really good,” Burns said. “It was an accomplishment, like he felt like he was being the kind of person he wanted to be. It was a good pride.”
It is a sentiment shared by his family and others who knew him. He was an energetic child. He liked football and basketball and, like most children, made sport of fighting with his siblings. But he also liked to give.
“He was always giving away things, giving away toys. If he had money, he would share it,” his grandmother said.
“He would want to give this, too,” she said of the decision to donate his organs.
Christian is the first child of his age to become an organ donor since 2012 in South Carolina, according to data kept by the United Network for Organ Sharing. In the last five years, 29 children age 10 and under have become donors in the state.
Matching body stature is nearly as important as matching blood type, so pediatric donors help ailing children, said Mark Johnson of LifePoint, Inc., South Carolina’s organ procurement organization.
Organ donation is often a delicate topic, even more so when it involves the death of a child.
“Recipients are always grateful, but parents of children who are recipients know there is another parent dealing with a tragedy on the other end,” he said.
Any donation touches off a complex logistical dance that can end with up to eight people receiving organs and another 50 helped though tissue donation, Johnson said.
Tuesday night, Christian was walking home from church with his family, leftovers in hand, when he darted into Conestee Road and stopped short in front of a car.
“I saw his plate of food go up in the air and I knew it was my little boy,” Ridge said. “His older brother was reaching down to him. He wanted to pick him up and I told him to let him lay.”
Christian, she said, never moved again.
The driver of the car, a 45-year-old Mauldin woman, wasn’t charged, state police said.
On Monday, additional counselors will be on hand for grieving students and staff, said Dr. Sandra Griffin, principal of Blythe Academy.
She remembered him Friday as a gregarious boy who had already made big strides in his short tenure at the school.
“He was a leader in his class and he wanted to do the right thing. He wanted the children to follow the rules,” she said. “The teachers felt he was growing a lot as a leader and as a student.”
“I’m so proud of this family for looking beyond their own tragedy for a way to help others,” Griffin said, recalling a child who liked to share and appreciated small kindnesses shown to him. “It’s a wonderful legacy for a little boy to leave.”