TikTok cops from North Carolina helping Battle Creek family buy wheelchair-accessible van
Emmri Tullis flashed her bright smile outside her home in Battle Creek on Wednesday.
The 9-year-old had only recently woken up from a nap. She was pushed in her wheelchair to the front yard, where she received tender hugs and kisses from her parents, Chelsey and Robert Banker, and her 1-year-old brother, Bennett.
Chelsey described her daughter as a happy, sometimes sassy kid who loves animals, watching scary movies and going on trips to visit family.
But, for the better part of two years, Emmri has essentially been homebound as she has outgrown her five-point harness car seat required to safely and comfortably transport her to doctors visits and her favorite destinations.
Due to the generosity of others on social media sites like TikTok, sparked by a pair of North Carolina police officers, the family is close to realizing their dream of finding a vehicle that will meet Emmri’s needs and improve her quality of life.
‘She’s proven everybody wrong’
Emmri was born with cytomegalovirus – or CMV – which is related to the viruses that cause chickenpox, herpes simplex and mononucleosis. In infants, complications can include intellectual disability, vision problems, hearing loss, seizures and weakness or problems using muscles. It is the most common infectious cause of birth defects in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in three children in the United States are already infected with CMV by age five. Symptoms in children and adults resemble the common cold. Once CMV is in a person’s body, it stays there for life, and, although antibodies can be developed, there is no cure.
According to Chelsey, Emmri can only control her facial expressions. She has epilepsy, microcephaly, some mild hearing loss, minoscoliousis, and her hips are severely out of socket. She has compromised lungs and a compromised immune system, making her vulnerable to viruses, and is now undergoing palliative care to improve her quality of life.
“She’s outlived everybody’s guidelines and expectations,” Chelsey said. “She’s proven everybody wrong and they don’t want to put a timeline on it, so that’s why it’s day-to-day. That’s why getting this van was so important to us, because for the last two years, we haven’t really been able to take her out and about much and she loves to travel.”
The Banker family is in the market for a standard minivan that can be converted to become wheelchair accessible. However, they say that, due in part to their status as a single-income family, they have struggled to get the financing required to purchase a van that meets the standards for grant funding toward a conversion.
TikTok cops, ‘You say car’
Chelsey has cultivated a social media following on TikTok under her handle @chelseybanker, with more than 219,000 followers. Many of her posts feature personal stories and insight about being the parent of a child with disabilities.
One post shared how Chelsey’s first husband, Emmri’s father, died tragically in 2011. Mitch Holwerda was 19 when he died in a motorcycle accident near Fine Lake in Delton. The post went on to share how she had been a single mother for six years when she began dating Robert, who was equally smitten with with both girls. The two married in 2019, with Emmri serving as maid of honor.
“I was extremely nervous at first. I didn’t know what to do and had no idea how hard it was going to be,” Robert admitted. “And it was actually the easiest thing. But me and (Emmri) formed a bond right away. I still think I’m her favorite.”
It was through Chelsey’s TikTok followers that she first learned of a fundraiser and contest promoted by North Carolina police officers Kevin Eudy of the Wingate Police Department and Josh Scales, who works as a company police officer in Forsyth County.
Eudy is also a social media personality with more than 1.4 million followers on TikTok under the handle @officer_eudy. This summer, he issued a “You Say Car” five-day challenge on the page. He and Scales (officer_scales, 49,000 TikTok followers), started with a fundraising goal of providing at least one family with a car and a year’s worth of insurance.
The contest saw donations reach $40,349 in five days. More than 1,000 emails were submitted, with six finalists selected who were then subject to voting on social media sites TikTok and Instagram.
Eudy said he became a police officer 10 years ago, after his mother was killed in a domestic violence situation. Both he and Scales say the intentions of their social media pages are to dispel misconceptions about police officers.
“(Scales) and I kind of started the social media thing to show a different side of law enforcement,” Eudy said. “He had an idea, where we say, ‘Yes we’re cops, but we love you.’ I like that. I was praying about it, what we can do about it to promote real change. You Say Car… I wasn’t expecting it to get as big of a response as it did.”
The law enforcement pair say they plan on traveling to West Virginia on Monday to deliver a vehicle to the other winning family before coming to Michigan to personally take the Banker family to purchase the van. They say they are paying for the trip out of their own pockets.
Paying it forward
The Banker’s will be paying it forward by donating their old van, signing the title over to Eudy who will return to North Carolina with it where it will be serviced before being given to another deserving family. That van was originally purchased thanks in large part to an anonymous donor who saw a report about Emmri and CMV on news station WWMT.
Eudy and Scales say they intend to create a nonprofit called “Love Behind the Badge,” where the officers will spearhead other acts of kindness such as buying groceries or helping to pay off mortgages.
“Who would have known two small town police officers from North Carolina would cross paths with some of the most amazing people on this earth?” Eudy said.
One more hurdle
Through the competition, Chelsey said they will receive $18,500 towards a new vehicle. That’s several thousand dollars short of the amount needed to help finance the van at a rate the family is comfortable with.
But, as of Friday afternoon, a GoFundMe page titled Handicap Accessible Vehicle for Emmri had raised $11,730, well beyond the original goal of $7,500, after one anonymous donor put them over the top with a $7,500 donation.
“She has a huge support system and always has,” Chelsey said. “It’s a huge blessing for our family. This is something that is going to dramatically change her quality of life. This is going to make whatever time she has left here less painful and more enjoyable and memories for her and her brother to make before it’s her time to go.
“Getting a wheelchair-accessible vehicle will make it possible for us to see family, for her to go to the park with her little brother and her to be more included in family activities… She’s going to be a lot more included now that she can be comfortable and safely transported… This is life changing all the ways this will improve her quality of life.”