Emery Miller’s desire to better the lives of those around him was birthed out of tragedy – a life-threatening heart defect that fueled his determination to defy the odds

A word of advice for those who happen to meet Emery Miller: Don’t tell him he can’t accomplish something. You’re only fueling his fire and setting yourself up to be proven wrong.

Miller should have died before the age of 1. Born with a hole in his heart and a failing aortic valve, he required four open-heart surgeries before the age of 7. As a child, the hospital became a second home – so much so that the facility offered his parents a reserved parking spot. He literally became the face of Phoenix Children’s Hospital, his smiling mug shot beaming on promotional posters encouraging people to support children like him.

All the while, Miller kept baffling his doctors. “Based on their tests, I should have been on the floor turning blue,” he says. “Instead, I was playing with toys. They said I was the happiest sick kid they’d ever seen.”

Doctors told him he would never play sports. He played T-ball. He was then told he would never play at the coach-pitch level. He did. Middle school ball? “Out of the question,” they said. He did that as well. Varsity baseball was the next test. Mission accomplished.

Today, Miller can’t help but chuckle when he ponders this reality: The kid who was told he would never be active – never live a “normal life” – is now playing collegiate baseball at George Fox University, overseeing a charity that’s operating in 13 states, and serving as a spokesperson for national organizations that include the American Heart Association and United Way.

“In my life I’ve been told a lot of things,” says Miller, a sophomore finance and management double major from Phoenix. “But anybody who knows me knows I have a ‘Whatever you tell me I’m going to prove you wrong’ attitude. In fact, I enjoy hearing people tell me I can’t do something. I would love some of my early-childhood doctors who doubted me to come watch me play ball. They wouldn’t recognize me.”

Miller’s defiance of the odds is fueled by a choice he made early on: Don’t let negative experiences define you. It’s a belief that so resonates with him that he chose those very words as the tagline for his charity, Team Emery. Rather than let misfortune take you down, use it as motivation to fight back and, in doing so, inspire others. It’s that resolve that led him to start Team Emery – a nonprofit launched by a simple idea he had as a fifth-grader.

“I had this thought that, if I could give a token of gratitude to help out another family, that would be sweet,” he says. “So I gave a teddy bear to another kid, and my mom posted something on Facebook. Within 20 minutes, we had 45 likes, 20 comments and five people saying they wanted to donate bears.”

Teddy Bear Toss during a basketball game

George Fox basketball fans participated in a teddy bear toss during Bruin FanFest in January. A total of 371 bears were collected by Emery’s charity and delivered to Newberg police and fire stations, then distributed to children at local hospitals. Team Emery has donated more than 44,000 teddy bears to sick children over the course of eight years.

Miller didn’t know it at the time, but his gesture of kindness was about to catch fire. Teddy bear donations began trickling in, and as word spread, the bear parade intensified. In its first year, Team Emery donated 400 bears to Phoenix Children’s Hospital – one for each child who had been admitted. Another 1,200 were given out in the charity’s second year, 1,600 in its third, and 2,200 in its fourth. All told, Team Emery has donated more than 44,000 bears in eight years after raising a record annual total (9,000 bears) in 2018. Looking ahead, the charity plans to add a scholarship in 2019, named in memory of one of Miller’s childhood friends, Dustin Tack, who died five years ago.

“When you say, ‘You want to make a difference? Come, follow me,’ you’d be surprised how many people get in line behind you,” Miller says. “People want to help. They want to make a difference. They just need to be inspired on how to do so.”

Team Emery was officially established as a nonprofit in 2016, and ultimately Miller hopes to see the organization operate in all 50 states. It’s just one branch of his charitable endeavors. Through speaking engagements at high-profile events – including those where he’s spoken alongside former NFL and television celebrities – Miller has helped raise more than $300,000 for the American Heart Association. At one particular event where he was being honored for his community service, Miller had the opportunity to meet the event’s keynote speaker – 23-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps.

“Michael Phelps mentioned me in his speech. How cool is that?” Miller laughs. “Seriously, none of this would have been possible if I hadn’t been born with this heart issue. I never would have had the opportunity to meet Michael Phelps, or speak at an event in Washington, D.C., where President Obama’s top aides were in attendance. Nobody would have ever chosen the start I had in life, but I’m doing my best to make something good come of it.”

Wherever he goes – the classroom, the ballfield, the hospitals – Miller is compelled to seek those who are down and encourage them. It’s a desire born out of his experience and nurtured by the love, support and encouragement he’s received from his parents, teachers and coaches. “Medically speaking, I shouldn’t be here, so why am I here?” he asks, pausing to reflect on the philosophical nature of the question. “I don’t ask, ‘Why me?’ I ask, ‘Why was I given this opportunity?’”

Miller’s message of hope and encouragement serves him well on campus and on the field of play. George Fox head baseball coach Marty Hunter calls him the “ultimate team guy.” Fellow teammates admire his determination and good-natured attitude, and he considers the baseball team his “other family.” The guy who, as a freshman, was the out-of-stater who knew no one on campus has transformed into a mentor to younger players. To them all, his message is the same.

“Bad things are going to happen to you in life,” he says. “The storms are going to come, so get ready. The key is to not let them define you. Don’t let negative experiences ruin your life. It’s easy to do, and sometimes it is easier to lay down and say, ‘This stinks.’ But God never said life was going to be perfect. What he does say is, during those rough times, he’s going to be there with you.”

Miller is also a firm believer in the exponential power of generosity. “I don’t think people realize how much they can accomplish by doing the simple things,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be big. Just give $1 to the American Heart Association. Donate a bear. Play bingo with someone at Friendsview. Just get involved and change the life of one person. They, in turn, will hopefully do the same for someone else.

“I guess that’s what I think of when I hear ‘stand tall.’ When you stand tall it will inspire those around you to stand tall with you. When you have an entire community doing so, it turns into a state and, hopefully one day, a nation. When that happens, what’s going to stop us?”