A Georgia mom is finding comfort by spending the holidays with the teen who received her son’s heart after he unexpectedly died two years ago.
Janece Risty’s 16-year-old son Tyler Liebl died suddenly from a massive brain hemorrhage in 2014, and the grieving mother made the decision to donate his organs to those in need. One of those recipients was 19-year-old Lance Frye.
“Since we connected this year, we’ve become like family,” Risty, a 41-year-old athletic trainer from Newnan, Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “God made Tyler’s heart for both Tyler and Lance and so we’re in this life together now!”
“I’m forever grateful to Tyler and his mom,” Frye, 19, tells PEOPLE. “I wouldn’t be here without him and now I’ve met Janece and we’ve formed such a special bond.”
Tyler was an “extremely healthy” straight-A student at Northgate High School when he died, his mom says. The teen loved snowboarding, had a passion for ballroom dancing and was active in his local youth group. But most of all, Risty remembers her son as “the most kind, selfless person.”
“He was one of those kids stood up for others being bullied,” she says. “He’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.”
But in July 2014, Tyler began complaining of a headache. And soon, he began seizing.
“He was so incredibly healthy, this really came out of the blue,” says Risty. “He had suffered a massive brain bleed, and they did surgeries to remove part of his skull to allow the brain to swell, but he quickly became brain dead.”
On July 30, 2014 Tyler died.
Risty says she discussed the option of being an organ donor with Tyler previously, when he first got his driver’s learning permit.
“And when he was dying, I knew it’s what he would have wanted,” she says. “I know he would want to help people.”
“He helped over 23 people in total. His kidney went to a 23-year-old engineering student, his liver to a 64-year-old man in Georgia and a young girl wrote me to say she was able to play basketball because of his tissue,” says Risty. “And, of course, his heart went to Lance.”
Risty connected with Frye in earlier in 2016 and the two formed “an instant bond.”
“It was important for me to learn about who gave me my heart and when Janece told me about Tyler, we formed a very special relationship,” Frye, who hopes to major in nursing at Westmoreland Community College, tells PEOPLE. “We’re family, that’s all you can say.”
On Christmas day, Frye and his parents, Betsy and Wilbur Frye, traveled to Risty’s home in Newnan to spend the holidays with her family. It’s only the second time the families have met in person, but it feels like they’ve “known each other forever.”
“It’s like having an extended family when we get together we all just get along well and it’s like having another nephew or sibling,” says Risty. “It’s a special connection knowing his story and knowing how Tyler helped him.”
Risty has spent the last few days showing Frye and his parents around her hometown — introducing her to her son’s favorite spots and paying visits to his high school and gravesite.
“Lance reminds me of Tyler in the little moments,” says Risty. “The way he lays on the couch and plays with my dog is very similar, the food he orders and gestures he makes.”
On Christmas the bonded families opened presents, watched movies and enjoyed a delicious holiday dinner.
“It’s been a really beautiful experience,” says Risty. “It’s emotional seeing Lance, but I feel a lot of joy knowing we helped him and that Tyler saved his life.”
Frye says he’s come to admire and respect Tyler from all of the stories Risty has told him.
“He was brave and confident enough to have that conversation with his mother about organ donation and I’m thankful for his mother to have kept those wishes,” he says. “Before the transplant I wasn’t able to do anything on my own, now I have a car I can drive and I’m in college, I’m just a regular kid.
“But none of that would have been possible without Tyler, I would have died without him.”
The Frye family will spend New Year’s Eve with Risty and her relatives in Newnan.
“I had Tyler for 16 years and the memory of him will never fade,” says Risy. “But those milestones like college, I’ll never have that with Tyler but I’m so lucky that I can now experience that with Lance. I’m grateful to his parents for letting me into their family.”
Adds Frye: “If I could talk to Tyler, I would say, ‘Thank you so so much. Thank you for my life.”