Gabriella Miller, childhood cancer awareness advocate, dies at 10

October 27, 2013

Gabriella Miller, the 10-year-old Loudoun County girl who rallied supporters across the world through her efforts to raise awareness for childhood cancer research, died at home late Saturday night, according to the Miller family.

The family announced Gabriella’s death Sunday in a statement on the “Make A Wish with Gabriella” Facebook page, a site created last year to organize support for Gabriella’s cause and chronicle her progress as she underwent grueling treatment for an inoperable brain tumor.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts and the greatest of love that we share the news that our daughter Gabriella passed away last night,” the statement said. “Thank you for loving our daughter and for all of your support.”

Gabriella, who was diagnosed almost a year ago with brain cancer, began hospice care at home last week due to a sudden decline in her health, said Chris Croll, a close friend and spokesperson for the Miller family.

“Everybody had an opportunity to say their goodbyes and their final words, and she passed very peacefully,” Croll said.


Gabriella Miller at 9. (Courtesy Miller Family)

Gabriella first drew national attention last year through a letter-writing campaign that helped raise more than $275,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She submitted her own request — for a dream trip to Paris, which she took with her family in May — soon after she was diagnosed in November 2012. But the philanthropic student also wanted to make sure that other children would have their wishes granted, her mother, Ellyn Miller, said at the time.

“She was always thinking about other kids,” Miller said. For years before Gabriella’s own diagnosis, she had donated her long, dark hair to Locks of Love, a group that provides hairpieces to children suffering medical hair loss.

The Miller family learned that the Make-A-Wish Foundation would secure a $1 million donation from Macy’s if the company received 1 million letters to Santa Claus before Christmas. So they decided to start a letter-writing campaign, titled “Make A Wish with Gabriella,” and tens of thousands of letters streamed in — first from the local community and the Washington region, then from across the nation, then from across the world.

Gabriella delivered nearly 241,000 letters to her local Macy’s store days before Christmas last year. Letters sent in separately on her behalf brought the total to more than 250,000, Ellyn Miller said.

In May, Gabriella was named Loudoun County’s Volunteer of the Year for her work. Before a standing ovation in the county boardroom, she shared her optimistic philosophy with the crowd: “You might have a bad day today, but there’s always a bright star to look forward to tomorrow,” she said.

The success of her letter-writing campaign only strengthened Gabriella’s ambition to help her cause. Along with her family, she decided that she wanted to do more to help raise the public’s awareness of the need for pediatric cancer research.

This year, the Millers launched the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, named for a unique family ritual: when Gabriella was first told that her brain tumor was about the size of a walnut, she and her family decided to use frying pans to smash walnuts on the rails of their deck to help the young cancer patient visualize defeating her illness.

More than 18,000 people followed Gabriella’s charitable efforts and her own personal story through her Facebook page, which posted both uplifting anecdotes about her happier moments and heartbreaking messages from her family as they shared their experience with unflinching honesty.

The family wrote about Gabriella becoming a published author after she contributed to “Beamer Learns About Cancer,” a story that aims to help children understand the illness. The Millers posted photographs of Gabriella walking the campus at Shenandoah University when the school helped grant her wish to go to college; Gabriella attended classes for a day and walked the stage at a special graduation ceremony, where she was honored once again for her work to fight childhood cancer. There was a poignant outtake from a documentary interview, where Gabriella first spoke through tears — “I need my childhood,” she pleaded — and then collapsed in a fit of giggles after declaring that elected leaders “talking [expletive]” wouldn’t help; children needed action, she said.

Last week, as Gabriella’s fight against her own illness became especially grave, a new collection effort was announced on her Facebook page. Croll asked the child’s supporters to send flowers made from tissue paper and pipe cleaners — flowers that won’t ever die, Croll said.

Those flowers will be displayed at Gabriella’s memorial service. Then, Croll said, they will be distributed to those who need them; they will be sent to families dealing with cancer, to doctors and nurses, to researchers and members of Congress who are in a position to influence the funding of cancer research.

“Each of these flowers was made with love, and they will be part of the embrace that we collectively show the Miller family in the coming days,” Croll said. “Then they will go to others, who also need an embrace, or to those who need to be reminded of why we have to spend more money and time on pediatric cancer research.”

Croll said she hasn’t done an official count, but thousands of flowers have been collected, with more continuing to pour in.

“It’s therapeutic for people, who want to know what they can do to help,” she said. “The one thing we all have in common is that everyone loves Gabriella.”

A public memorial service will be held Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Heritage High School in Leesburg, the family said Sunday. In lieu of flowers, the Millers requested that those who wish to honor Gabriella make a contribution to her cancer awareness and research foundation at www.smashingwalnuts.com.

This story has been updated.

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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