Gabriella Miller’s thick, dark hair flows halfway down her back, just a couple of inches short of her goal length. The precocious 9-year-old — she describes herself emphatically as “almost 10,” with her January birthday around the corner — has been growing her hair for months so that she can donate it to Locks of Love, a nonprofit group that provides wigs and hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children facing medical hair loss.
“So it’s ironic that Gabriella then gets cancer herself,” said her mother, Ellyn Miller.
Three weeks ago, the Miller family learned why Gabriella, a fourth-grader at Loudoun Country Day School in Leesburg, had recently experienced headaches and blurry vision. 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. Gabriella was excited to submit a request for a trip to Paris. She hopes to go with her family next year, after she finishes chemotherapy and radiation treatments next month.
Despite her young age, Gabriella has already made a practice of giving back: The hair donation to Locks of Love will be her second, and she once helped collect more than 400 pounds of food for a local food bank, her mother said.
So when Ellyn Miller saw a full-page Macy’s ad in The Washington Post promising that if the company received 1 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.
Mother and daughter decided immediately that they would help, and Gabriella set her goal: She would contribute 10,000 letters.
As of Tuesday — thanks to the help of legions of friends, local organizations, schools, churches and a wave of attention from national media — that goal appeared to be within easy reach.
“We expect to be over 10,000 as of today, but we are still sorting and counting,” said family friend Christina Croll, a marketing professional who serves as the campaign’s chief organizer.
Ellyn Miller said the effort has interfaith support: The Millers’ synagogue and several others are participating, writing letters to Mr. R.H. Macy instead of Santa Claus.
“It’s not really about Santa Claus,” Ellyn Miller 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, a dream Gabriella calls “her shining star.” The Millers want to make sure other children going through grueling medical treatment will also have something they can look forward to.
The letter-writing campaign is coinciding with a demanding treatment schedule. Gabriella started a 30-day regimen of chemotherapy and radiation just before Thanksgiving that will continue into next month.
The hope is that the treatment will shrink and destroy the tumor. 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 Miller, took her out one night and bought a package of walnuts. 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 and a hammer.
It was a surprisingly empowering act, Ellyn Miller said. “It’s become a daily tradition in our house.”
The family also created a Facebook page to help spread the word about the campaign and its progress. As of Tuesday, the Make-A-Wish With Gabriella page had been “liked” by more than 1,500 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 Miller said.
Croll said the letter-writing campaign has given Gabriella a much-needed distraction from her medical treatments and helps keep her attitude upbeat.
“Gabriella’s tumor is pressing on some of her facial nerves, which makes it difficult for her to smile — but she still lights up the room wherever she goes,” Croll said.
The campaign has continued to gain momentum in recent days. “American Idol” winner Taylor Hicks has joined the cause, blogging and tweeting to ask his fans to support Gabriella’s goal.
Every new letter and posted message, whether from a celebrity or a classmate, helps keep Gabriella excited and positive as she goes through the exhausting treatments, her mother said.
“She really enjoys just reading everything that people post,” Ellyn 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, Dec. 23.
For those would like to write a letter to support Gabriella’s goal, Loudoun School for the Gifted, 44675 Cape Ct., Unit 105, Ashburn, will host a letter-writing event from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Letters can also be dropped off in the large mailbox in the lobby of the Loudoun Country Day School until Tuesday, or mailed to: Dear Santa “Make-A-Wish With Gabriella,” 20899 McIntosh Pl., Leesburg, Va. 20175.
Fliers, letter templates and more information about the campaign can be seen on Christina Croll’s Web site, www.crollventures.com.