October 23, 2013 7:45 pm  •  by Alice Miller – The Missoulian

When she was 6, Jaden Gregory did not fully understand the significance of the wooden, heart-shaped pins she

made and which Shawn Hertel says saved his life.

Hertel was in prison for robbery 10 years ago when he heard the news that his daughter, Tylin Garrymore, had died after being beaten to death by her stepfather.

Tylin died just shy of her second birthday, and Hertel was faced with a decision: Avoid parole and serve a “father’s justice” on Tylin’s abuser or return to the outside.

Then, he saw a Missoulian story about Jaden and her mother, Donelle, who were making pins in memory of Tylin.

“It changed my whole outlook on life and what I wanted to do with my life,” said Hertel, who decided he could still be a moral father to Tylin even if he couldn’t be her physical father anymore.

For Jaden, the pins were a simple way to help remember the toddler.

When she saw her mother crying while watching the news and learned it was because of Tylin, Jaden’s first reaction was to ask if they could take her a toy. Because that was impossible, mother and daughter made heart pins and their sale raised $1,000, which was donated to the Watson Children’s Shelter.

Over the years since, Donelle has often wondered if the donation made a difference.

While she was wondering, Hertel was searching for the Gregorys to tell them what a positive impact their efforts had made.

His search’s success was stymied for years because he was using Donelle’s married name at the time of Tylin’s death.

On Saturday, Hertel finally had the chance to tell them how much their actions meant by presenting Jaden with the inaugural Jaden Gregory Hearts to Remember Award from the Dandelion Foundation.

The Great Falls-based foundation was created by Jessica Bray to raise awareness about child and domestic abuse after her daughter, Kaelyn, died from abuse.

Bray kick-started the foundation with money that Hertel, his wife Kristal, and friend Sara Whitney raised by selling hand-crafted magnets, just like the Gregorys had helped them with their pin sales.

“Our foundation is ultimately just a ripple effect of their act of kindness,” said Hertel, who serves as chairman of the Dandelion Foundation’s board.

No matter what the act of kindness, it has an impact, he said. “You don’t know how big of a difference you’re going to make in someone’s life.”

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Now a senior at Sentinel High School, Jaden is overwhelmed by what her simple actions have become.

“It’s unbelievable,” she said about the recent revelation that her efforts inspired the Dandelion Foundation’s creation.

“I’m still in shock over it,” said Jaden, who thought she had been invited to the foundation’s banquet just to sing.

She sang “Concrete Angel” during the event before realizing she was the guest of honor and receiving an award, time in a recording studio to pursue her dream of becoming a professional singer and a necklace symbolizing child abuse.

She also received a check for $1,000, which she emotionally delivered to Watson Children’s Shelter on Wednesday and which will be used to provide normalcy for the children who are in the shelter because of abusive and crisis situations.

Hertel didn’t tell Jaden or Donelle who he was until the awards ceremony, when he pulled aside his jacket to reveal a wooden, heart-shaped pin he has kept through the years.

The kinship was instant. “We met Saturday and there was just this automatic connection,” Jaden said.

After graduation from Sentinel this spring, Jaden plans to become a nurse and said the recent recognition makes her want to continue to raise awareness about child abuse regardless of where she ends up attending college.

“It honestly just makes me want to go do more,” she said, adding that people shouldn’t be afraid or uncomfortable to talk about abuse.

Her story shows that people don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a positive impact, she said. “Anybody can make a difference.”

The interconnected sequence of events over the past decade has an even deeper meaning to Donelle, who was in an abusive relationship at the time Jaden was born but left after the second time Jaden was nearly injured.

Years later, Jaden wanted to help, without even realizing she had been a victim herself as a newborn, Donelle said. “And I remember just sitting there thinking, you have no idea – and someday you will – but you have no idea what you’re doing right now for a little girl that easily could have been you.”

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