Gabriella Miller’s thick, dark hair flows halfway down her back, just a couple inches short of her goal length. The precocious nine year-old – she describes herself emphatically as “almost 10,” with her January birthday just around the corner – has been growing her hair for months; she plans to donate it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children facing long-term medical hair loss.
“So it’s ironic that Gabriella then gets cancer herself,” said Gabriella’s mother, Ellyn Miller.
Just three weeks ago, the Miller family learned why Gabriella, a fourth-grader at Loudoun Country Day School in Leesburg, had recently complained of headaches and blurry vision: the results of an MRI revealed an inoperable tumor on her brain stem.
After the diagnosis, a social worker at Children’s National Medical Center told Gabriella and her parents that she qualified for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and Gabriella was excited to submit a request for a trip to Paris. She hopes to go with her family next year, after she finishes her chemotherapy and radiation treatment in January.
Even at her young age, Gabriella has already made a practice of giving back – she still plans to make her second hair donation to Locks of Love, and she once helped collect over 400 pounds of food for a local food bank, her mother said.
So when Ellyn saw a full-page Macy’s store ad in The Washington Post – promising that if the company received one million letters to Santa Claus before Christmas, it would donate $1 million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation – she ripped it out and showed it to her daughter.
They decided immediately that they would help, and Gabriella set her goal: she would contribute 10,000 letters.
Gabriella’s school offered to help, along with legions of friends, local organizations, schools and churches. The campaign has rapidly developed thousands of supporters across the community and far beyond – an interfaith effort, Ellyn noted: the Millers’s synagogue and several others are also participating, writing letters to Mr. R. H. Macy instead of Santa Claus.
“It’s not really about Santa Claus,” Ellyn said. “It’s about helping this amazing organization.”
The promise of a trip to Paris is a light at the end of the tunnel for the family, she said – Gabriella calls it “her shining star.” The Millers want to make sure that other kids going through grueling medical treatment can also have something of their own to look forward to.
The letter-writing campaign coincides with a demanding treatment schedule. Gabriella started a 30-day regimen of chemotherapy and radiation just before Thanksgiving, and will continue into January, Ellyn said.
The hope is that the treatment will shrink and kill the tumor — and together, the family came up with a physical metaphor to help Gabriella visualize that victory. After the doctors compared the size of a tumor to a walnut, Gabriella’s father, Mark, took her out one night and bought a package of walnuts. Back at home, they lined up the nuts on the deck railing outside, and Gabriella – along with her parents and her little brother, Jake – smashed them with a mallet, a frying pan, a hammer.
It was a surprisingly empowering act, Ellyn said. “It’s become a daily tradition in our house.”
The family also created a public Facebook page to help spread the word about the campaign and its progress - as of Thursday, the “Make A Wish with Gabriella” page had been “liked” by more than 550 people, and included messages and photos from community members who had pitched in to support the cause.
“The support from people has been unbelievably overwhelming,” Ellyn said.
The campaign’s organizers – led by family friend Christina Croll, a marketing professional – have already collected more than 2,000 letters since Saturday, Croll said Thursday.
“If this is going to give her ten thousand distractions from what she’s going through, we can get her ten thousand letters,” Croll said.
Croll said the effort quickly went viral, with e-mails pouring in from around the world. American Idol winner Taylor Hicks even joined the cause, blogging and tweeting to ask his fans to support Gabriella’s goal.
Every message – whether from a celebrity or a classmate – helps keep Gabriella excited and positive as she goes through the exhausting treatment process, Ellyn said.
“She really enjoys just reading everything that people post,” she said. “It’s truly unbelievable.”
Gabriella plans to deliver the letters to a local Macy’s store — with the help of her friends, family and a large truck, Croll said — on Dec. 23.
“It’s really taken off,” Croll said. “We can make this happen.”
For those would like to write a letter to support Gabriella’s goal, Loudoun Country Day School will host a letter-writing event on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. The school is at 20600 Red Cedar Dr., Leesburg. A second event will take place Dec. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon at Loudoun School for the Gifted, at 44675 Cape Court, Unit 105, Ashburn.
Letters can also be dropped off in the large mailbox in the lobby of the Loudoun Country Day School until Dec. 18, or mailed to: Dear Santa “Make-A-Wish with Gabriella,” 20899 McIntosh Place, Leesburg VA 20175.
Flyers, letter templates and more information about the campaign can be found on Christina Croll’s Web site, at www.crollventures.com.