VALRICO — Brandyn Preston was fighting for life in an Iowa hospital when his mother noticed something unusual.
The 19-year-old’s heart stopped beating several times and doctors had to revive him, but through her panic, Kim Wood saw something that shook her to the core.
Her son, a 6-foot-7 basketball standout, was smiling as doctors worked to bring him back to life.
"The next day, I told him he had a big smile on his face when they were trying to revive him, and he told me he saw God and angels and God told him it wasn’t time for him to go yet," Wood said. "He restored my faith. I kept asking God ‘Why would this happen?’ But after that, I said ‘Okay, I have to believe because surely this can’t be a fluke.’"
Until then, Wood was questioning her faith in God, she said. Her son was shot in the neck on May 8, 2011, while attending a backyard graduation party for his cousin in a Fort Dodge, Iowa, neighborhood. He was paralyzed from the bullet that pierced his spinal cord.
Preston died Jan. 22, 2013, after clinging to life with the help of ventilator. He spent months in an Iowa hospital and a Nebraska rehabilitation center before being brought home to Florida. His mother quit her job to be her son’s full-time caretaker.
This year, when Wood received her first restitution check from the Iowa Department of Corrections on behalf of Derrick McElroy, 31, of Fort Dodge, Iowa, the man serving a life sentence for Preston’s death, she knew she had to find a way to keep her son’s memory alive.
From that, Brandyn’s Angels was born.
Wood now receives $187 each month in restitution and takes that money to buy supplies to make bags for Tampa’s homeless population. She’s asking for donations of blankets, toiletries and water bottles to fill those bags until the end of January. Plans are in the works to continue these efforts next year during the holidays.
Wood has already made trips to Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa where she’s handed out dozens of bags to the homeless.
"Our son was a very giving person with a big heart," Wood said. "So we decided to use the restitution money that we just recently started receiving from the Iowa Department of Corrections from the person convicted of his murder to give back to the community that he was once a part of."
Preston grew up with his mother and stepfather and attended East Bay and Robinson high schools, as well as Waynesville High School in Missouri where he was a basketball standout.
According to the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, there are roughly 1,550 people either living in the streets or in temporary shelters.
"I think it’s very admirable for her to use her restitution, especially in her time of need," said Antoinette Hayes Triplett, CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, an organization that works with 60 other agencies to combat homelessness.
"The agencies are always in need of items for men, woman and children," she said. "Our mission is always to get them a permanent home."
So far, the response to Brandyn’s Angels has been overwhelming, Wood said.
"People are amazing. They’re dropping stuff off at my house, calling, asking how they can help," Wood said. "I know my son would have wanted this and that’s the only gratification I need. He would have given the shirt off his back to help someone. He had."
Brandyn’s Angels is somewhat of an outlet for the mother’s grief, but she knows the loss of her child will never stop hurting.
"You never get over it. I just try to get through it. People say it gets better with time. But I don’t know any mother that could ever get over that," she said.
To donate to Brandyn’s Angels, call Wood at (813) 270-1853.
Contact Crystal Owens at [email protected]