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Living

How One Teacher’s Legacy Is Going Viral

This Georgia educator's end-of-life plan allowed her to serve beyond death


Part of the Living to the End of Life Special Report

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a special report for The John A. Hartford Foundation.)

“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

These famous words of composer/lyricist/playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda from the Broadway smash Hamilton touch on something that many of us ponder as we age: What is our legacy? What will we leave behind? How will we be remembered? For many, this is a question bigger than the material items we may leave behind. Instead, it has to do with the impact we have made on the world we are leaving behind.Tammy Waddell, a teacher in Forsyth County, Ga., lost a battle with colon cancer last month at the age of 58, according to a story reported by CNN. Two weeks before she died, she asked her son to let people know that she would prefer that no flowers be sent in honor of her memorial.

Instead, Waddell, who had been an elementary school teacher for 25 years, wanted well-wishers to contribute backpacks full of supplies for children in need.

“This was just the kind of teacher she was, and this is a reflection of her heart,” her cousin Brad Johnson said in an interview with CNN. “She was a teacher first, all the way.”

Planning a Legacy With Service in Mind

Waddell, CNN reported, had previously beaten colon cancer, but when she was diagnosed with a recurrence in August of last year, doctors told her she didn’t have long to live. She then retired from teaching and spent her final months thinking about ways she could continue to serve.

In a stunning tribute to Waddell’s  life and career, her former students, colleagues and community have collected hundreds of backpack donations. Given the extra time to plan for the end of her life, this teacher’s final act of selflessness has captured the internet’s attention — and serves as a reminder that there is indelible good in the world. At a time when the nightly news may seem particularly grim, her backpacks have made international news.

CNN also reported that Waddell’s legacy will continue to live on with the families in the school district where she taught. Johnson told CNN that since he shared photos of backpacks at his cousin’s funeral on social media, he was contacted by Tes Resources, a nonprofit that helps teachers around the world,  and the organization will honor Waddell with a donation of thousands of school supplies for Forsyth County students.

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By Bryce Kirchoff
Bryce Kirchoff has produced web and social media campaigns for organizations at all levels of the media industry and also has experience launching community engagement initiatives, building websites and crafting social campaigns. He holds a master’s of science degree in New Media Management from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and lives in Los Angeles.@bckirchoff

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