Hannah Nelson

Hannah Nelson, one of the Avondale Quads, started Brandon’s Smile Toy Drive in honor of her late brother, center, surrounded by his siblings.

This is the first holiday season Hannah Nelson will be without her beloved brother Brandon. 

Part of the “Avondale Quads,” Nelson and her other brothers, Matthew and Michael Reed, lost Brandon Rowin when he passed away Jan. 18. It was nine days after the quadruplets celebrated their 22nd birthday.

Hannah, Brandon, Michael and Matthew, known as the Avondale Quads, were born Jan. 9, 1998. Three months later, the four babies were hospitalized with broken bones and skull fractures.

 Brandon suffered the most severe injuries, and doctors believed he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or even live to 10 years old.

However, Brandon lived more than twice that long before passing away. In his honor, Hannah started Brandon’s Smile Toy Drive with Arizona Helping Hands to benefit local foster kids. 

She said Thanksgiving week she already collected over 250 toys and $2,000 in donations. With 14,000 foster kids statewide,  she hopes to collect more and try to help as many children in foster care as she can.

“My brothers and I were in foster care, so there’s a really big place in our heart and we know how tough it is to be in the system,” Nelson said. “I just wanted to basically put a smile on their face but know that it’s through Brandon’s Toy Drive.” 

Nelson, a public health major at Northern Arizona University,  is excited to continue her brother’s legacy of smiles because that’s the “one thing” she misses the most.

“I know what’s going to put a smile on a foster kid’s face is a toy,” Nelson said. “They want to know they’re loved, and they want to know that they are thought about during this time.”

AHH Marketing Development Coordinator Lori Calhoun said she is “blown away” by Nelson’s work ethic and is impressed by Nelson’s innovative ideas to help foster children.

Calhoun said any toys left over from Brandon’s Toy Drive will go to the “Birthday Dreams Program,” which serves over 300 children per month. 

“We’ve already been packaging up the holiday toy requests in our warehouse—it’s already beginning to look a lot like Christmas back there,” Calhoun said. “We will distribute them on Dec. 18 and 19.”

Difficult memories

The Avondale Quads were adopted by three families after their biological parents, Elizabeth Shannon Whittle and Anthony Perez, were found guilty of child abuse. Elizabeth Whittle was originally sentenced to 172 years, but that sentence was reduced in 2005 after she struck a plea deal.

Nelson married and settled into a West Valley home with a growing family.

She said the word “Avondale” brings up painful emotions.

“It has nothing to do with the people in the city—I think it’s just the name tied to it,” Nelson said. “The moment we cross the city boundaries and it says ‘Welcome to Avondale,’ my stomach drops and I just shut down.”

Nelson said she spent lots of quality time with Brandon and credits her mother, who is a therapist, for passing on the desire to work with special needs children. 

Nelson fondly recalled seeing Brandon shortly before his death and recounted the love the siblings still have for each other.

“I saw Brandon right before I had my first daughter last year, a month before I had her. And then I saw him again when he was in the hospital,” Nelson said. “My brothers, they love him to death; they adore him.” 

Nelson does not want people to forget about Brandon and his smile. She said the toy drive helps her cope with the loss of Brandon. She looks forward to engaging with as many foster kids as possible and to see her brother’s huge smile on the kids’ faces.

“My job was to just collect toys. And it’s like, every toy I get, I’ve honestly cried so many times about the toy drive because it’s like, wow!” Nelson said. 

Most important is the memory of Brandon.

“His smile is going to continue. And you know what? I did my job. At the end of the day, I did my job,” she said.

For more information about Brandon’s Smile Toy Drive, visit azhelpinghands.org or call 480-889-0604.