In the past few months, 10-year-old Gabriella Miller’s life has been a whirlwind. In November, the precocious fourth-grader learned she had an inoperable brain tumor. Almost immediately, she began a grueling treatment regimen and submitted a request to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a dream trip to Paris.
Then Gabriella, who has always expressed a desire to help others — she has twice donated her hair to Locks of Love, a group that provides hairpieces to children with medical hair loss — said she wanted to help other children have their wishes fulfilled, too. So she and her family decided to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation secure a $1 million donation from Macy’s, a contribution that would be possible if the company received 1 million letters to Santa Claus before Christmas.
Gabriella’s friends and family members helped her launch a Facebook campaign Dec. 1, with a goal to collect 10,000 letters. After 20,000 letters poured in after just 10 days, she set a new goal: 50,000 letters.
The effort, supported by the Millers’ synagogue, interfaith groups, local schools, friends, relatives and people across the country and the world, far exceeded expectations. Two days before Christmas, Gabriella delivered nearly 241,000 letters to Macy’s.
Combined with other deliveries made in Gabriella’s name by friends and family members in other states, the total almost certainly exceeded 250,000 letters, said Ellyn Miller, Gabriella’s mother.
“It really was pretty amazing,” Ellyn Miller said.
The campaign resulted in enough funding to grant the wishes of 36 children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, said family friend Christina Croll, a marketing professional who served as the letter drive’s chief organizer.
Gabriella was thrilled by the campaign’s success, her mother said, but the experience of receiving so much attention from news media, the public and even celebrities was also “somewhat overwhelming.”
Gabriella was still facing the reality of a cancer diagnosis, Ellyn Miller said, “and as with anybody, it’s so scary. And Gabriella was getting a lot of attention because she had cancer, not because she did an excellent job in a play she starred in, not because of her accomplishments, but because of something that happened to her.”
After the letter drive ended, Ellyn said, Gabriella was ready to focus on healing and finding “quieter” ways to help others.
Gabriella finished her radiation treatment four weeks ago and will continue an oral chemotherapy regimen for a year, Ellyn said. There are good days and bad days — the treatment has left Gabriella generally exhausted, her mother said, although she still goes to school when she can and enjoys being around her friends and classmates.
The best part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation letter drive was the way it focused the family’s attention on something positive and hopeful, Ellyn Miller said.
“We feel as though we need to focus on good things, continuing to help other people,” she said. “What we want to do now is truly become advocates to make childhood cancer awareness more prevalent.”
Miller noted the widespread publicity surrounding Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, with its barrage of television commercials, National Football League players wearing pink and the White House illuminated with pink lights.
“Childhood cancer groups want the White House to be lit yellow or gold in September, in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month,” she said.
Along with the desire to help make a national statement, local efforts to support Gabriella and encourage childhood cancer research have continued. A walk-a-thon in honor of Gabriella is planned for 10 a.m. March 10 in Leesburg, Miller said, and will benefit the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation.
Family members also continue to post updates about Gabriella on the “Make-A-Wish With Gabriella” Facebook page, which as of Tuesday had received more than 7,100 “likes.”
As for Gabriella’s own wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ellyn said the family is hoping to travel to Paris together over the summer. The trip has been another positive focal point for Gabriella, Ellyn said.
“She’s amazing,” Ellyn said of her daughter. “She’s brave and courageous. She’s my hero.”