Thanks to the kindness of others, Courtney Bissinger has a new ride.

She accepted the keys to the 1998 Dodge Caravan Thursday night during a benefit dinner at Cadillac Jack’s. The van has a side loader and electronic ramp that will allow the Pendleton mom to more easily transport her two-year-old daughter, Ember, to medical appointments.

Ember was born with a brain condition that affects her vision, hearing and mobility. She recently got her first wheelchair.

As dozens of diners chowed down Thursday on ribs and potato salad, Bissinger looked around the interior of Cadillac Jack’s in wonderment as she held her giggling toddler. Many of the people in the room were unfamiliar.

“To see complete strangers want to pitch in and help. ...” said the single mother. “It is very, very touching.”

Life hasn’t been easy. When Ember emerged from the womb, doctors noticed the baby’s head was smaller than normal. Doctors ordered a CT scan and then an MRI. Bissinger and her mother waited anxiously for the results.

“We were freaking out but trying to stay hopeful,” Bissinger recalls.

The news wasn’t good. Ember’s undersized brain hadn’t fully developed. The MRI showed fluid pockets and calcification.

“‘She will never be able to independently care for herself,’” Bissinger remembers the neurosurgeon saying. “‘She will be dependent on you for the rest of her life.’”

Bissinger said she went into a state of shock, but eventually pulled herself together and started putting one foot in front of the other. Doctors couldn’t give her an exact road map of Ember’s future as far as her sight and hearing and development. A hearing aid has brought the little girl’s hearing into normal range, but her eyesight is still a mystery. Bissinger knows Ember sees something because she tracks objects and looks into her mom’s eyes.

“Our life is a game,” she said. “It is trial and error to find out her capabilities. You have to be patient.”

Doctors theorized that Ember’s condition was the result of Courtney contracting cytomegalovirus early in her pregnancy. The virus is common and generally harmless — most of us get it sometime in our lives.

“It’s as easy to get as the common cold,” Bissinger said. “The only time is causes harm is when you’re pregnant.”

As Ember grew, getting her to medical appointments was an increasing concern, but Courtney, who had to give up her job, couldn’t afford a van with a wheelchair ramp.

The Dodge Grand Caravan Entervan parked in the Cadillac Jack’s parking lot most recently belonged to Jef Glenn, who had purchased the vehicle for her husband. Carl, a retired railroad worker with lung and brain cancer, only rode in the van twice before his death in February. Jef later took some of Carl’s health care items to a medical equipment loan closet run by Clearview Mediation in Pendleton. She mentioned the van to Clearview CEO Darrin Umbarger.

“I told him the van needed to go to somebody who really needed it,” Glenn said.

After some research, Umbarger suggested Bissenger as the recipient. The dinner raised $2,800 to purchase the van from Glenn. Bissinger marveled at how many people stepped up. Umbarger played matchmaker. Glenn detailed the van and took it to a mechanic. One guy (Bissenger regrets not getting his name) brought a teddy bear and brand-new tie-down straps for the wheelchair. Businesses and individuals donated food and door prize items. Zeigler Transmission donated labor for replacing a belt in the van. Master Printers printed flyers for free. Inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute gave items created in the prison woodshop. Tiffany Knight, a friend whose company Pendleton Web Development does social media for Cadillac Jack’s, organized the dinner. A GoFundMe account brought in $515.

Glenn, who attended the dinner, said her late husband would have loved seeing the van go to transport Ember.

“He would be delighted,” Glenn said. “He would be holding her right now.”

Across the room, someone tickled Ember and she giggled in delight.

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

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