Few birthday gifts or Christmas presents are powerful enough to bring more than 100 people to tears.
But there were sobs, gasps and hugs outside the North Charleston Holiday Inn on Sunday night as Stratford High School senior Brittany Riffe received the surprise of the holiday season.
Brittany turned 18 on Sunday — her first birthday since an August car accident left her paralyzed from her torso down six days before the start of her senior year of high school.
Charleston County Council Chairman Tim Scott read about her ordeal in The Post and Courier and vowed to give Brittany a birthday she would never forget.
Scott enlisted help to plan a birthday party at the Holiday Inn with a band, food, cake, decorations and presents. Family members, friends and several community leaders sang a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" as Brittany's mother, Sherry Riffe, wheeled her daughter toward the cake. Clad in a black sequined dress with her hair formally pinned, Brittany closed her eyes and made a wish.
Scott then urged the crowd to go to the front of the hotel. When it came into view, Brittany covered her mouth with her hands and repeated, "Oh my god." The tears flowed from Sherry Riffe's eyes.
Parked in front of the family was a blue Honda Element, complete with a license plate bearing Brittany's name.
"It takes my breath away," Brittany said. "It's amazing."
Half of the cost of the 2007 vehicle is being donated by Stokes Honda, while the insurance company Scott owns is
fronting $8,500 for the other half.
The Honda Element can be modified with hand controls, removable seats and a wheelchair ramp and was recommended by Brittany's doctors as a vehicle that's safe for wheelchair-using drivers to operate. "Now I won't have to have my mom drop me off places anymore," Brittany said.
Gary Wexler, general manager of Stokes Honda, said the dealership is committed to doing whatever it takes to "make it work for Brittany." The car comes with an 100,000-mile warranty and free oil changes, he said.
Scott knows how devastating an accident can be to a teenager on the cusp of a bright future. The county council chairman said he fell asleep while driving a car during his senior year of high school. The car flipped 12 times. Scott's injuries caused him to miss his last football season and to lose out on some college scholarships. He marvels at Brittany's spirit and perseverance as she faces a senior year very different from what she once imagined.
"This young lady has had the courage and optimism of a champion," he said. "She deserves all we can give."
Scott also is working with the county Sheriff's Office to give Brittany a part-time job as a spokeswoman for a new seat belt awareness campaign. Brittany's seat belt wasn't buckled on the morning of the accident, and she's said that she wants to reach out to other young drivers to share the importance of fastening seat belts. Scott also passed out brochures detailing Brittany's medical expenses, which have exceeded $200,000 so far, and gave contact information for donations.
The past month hasn't been easy for Brittany. A urinary tract infection several weeks ago led to another hospital stay, and Brittany now has to consult with a urologist. But she continues to succeed at Stratford, where she was named to the school's Hall of Fame and as one of 12 female contestants in the upcoming Miss Stratford pageant.
As Brittany mingled with friends and family Sunday, her mother reflected on the community's generosity. Sherry Riffe said her daughter met Scott for the first time only three weeks ago.
"He just came out of nowhere, yet he's done so much for us," Riffe said. "I never expected any of this for my daughter. It definitely makes this a wonderful Christmas for us."