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8-year-old Cheyenne Browne's selfless act inspires Post readers' generosity

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 10:03 PM

It was a typical Christmas wish list - but one that 8-year-old Cheyenne Browne had drawn up with uncommon longing: a firetruck, police car and Barbie doll.

Her father had been a firefighter in North Carolina. In 2006, Michael Browne was killed while saving Cheyenne from a tornado. He had been carrying her toward the safety of a ravine when, suddenly, they were airborne.

Cheyenne, then 4, was torn from her father's arms and critically injured when a tree limb fell on her face. Her jaw was broken and most of her teeth knocked out. Her dad's body was found the next day beneath a pile of debris more than 100 yards away, arms still locked across his chest the same way he had been holding on to his little girl.

In a column last week, I wrote about Cheyenne's affinity for firetrucks and how she wanted to be a firefighter like her dad someday. I met Cheyenne two weeks ago while covering a shopping spree sponsored by a volunteer group of Charles County sheriff's deputies. Each year, the Shop With A Cop program selects about 85 deserving youngsters, gives them $200 and takes them to Wal-Mart in Waldorf to buy clothes and gifts.

I saw Cheyenne perusing the toy shelves when she spotted a fire engine- just like the one she used to ride in with her father and watch from the cab as he put out fires. She could have bought it for herself. Instead, she used the last of her $200 to buy gifts for her grandmother and friends. You wouldn't think that a broken heart could still be filled with so much love, that a girl who had already lost so much would be so willing to sacrifice for others.

Readers felt it, too.

"I was touched deeply [by her story] and asked that my son, 11, read it aloud to my 3 other children - 9, 7 and 4 - and asked that they think about how thankful they should be," wrote Bran Stisher of Bethesda. "As my son read he was moved to tears, something I've not seen before in a situation like this. At the end he and my oldest daughter, 9, asked if we could buy Cheyenne the fire truck and helicopter and find a way to give it to her? I promised them that I would find out how to get it to her."

Sticher wasn't alone.

From Lynn Marquis: "What child with limited resources would use extra money to buy gifts for others and not for herself? She should get that fire truck and if possible I would like to purchase it for her."

Soon the toys started arriving from all over, boxed and mailed to the Sherrif's Office for delivery to Cheyenne; some folks brought their gifts in cars. My mailbox at The Washington Post began filling up with greeting cards that had cash, checks and gift cards tucked inside.

"To say the response was tremendous would be an understatement," said Diane Richardson, a spokeswoman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office. "We were inundated with calls from as far away as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, not to mention the dozens and dozens of calls from around here."

Richardson said a woman called for a deputy sheriff to meet her at a Wal-Mart so she could give him a firetruck that she'd just bought for Cheyenne.

"Eventually, we had to start asking people if they'd like to make donations to other children and their families. If we'd gave every firetruck to Cheyenne, she'd have enough trucks to fill every firehouse in Charles County," Richardson said.

A bighearted plumber found out that the family could use a new water heater - and gave them one. Said Linda Browne: "No more two-minute showers before the water turns cold."

Richardson helped figure out what to do with the toys. For Cheyenne, there would be a special delivery. On Sunday afternoon, a motorcade of firetrucks from the Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department and patrol cars from the Sheriff's Office pulled up to her house, lights flashing and sirens blaring.

When Cheyenne ran outside to see what the fuss was all about, she saw Santa, a huge sack of toys slung over his shoulder, waving at her from atop one of the firetrucks.

"Is this really for me?" she asked her grandmother.

Ordinarily, sorrow is deeply etched in her face - a reflection, no doubt, of the inner world of a girl who draws terrifying funnel clouds, with stick figures vanishing in a whirl of black crayon.

"She still can't understand why her daddy had to go to heaven," Linda Browne said.

Lately, though, she has been smiling more. When a firefighter beckoned her to take a ride in his truck, Cheyenne lit up. Then ran right past the truck to the homes of her friends and brought them back to share in the excitement.

"I use my firetruck to rescue Barbie from Rapunzel's castle," Cheyenne told me.

Just like her dad had rescued her.

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