Gabriella Miller, the vibrant little girl from Leesburg who gained national attention for her efforts to raise awareness of pediatric brain cancer, died Saturday. She was 10 years old.
“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,” her parents Mark and Ellyn Miller wrote on the Facebook page Make A Wish with Gabriella Sunday morning.
Gabriella, a fifth-grader at Loudoun Country Day School, was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2012, and over the 11 months that followed, took every opportunity to share her story and voice the need for more awareness and research of pediatric cancer.
“She just turned this cancer diagnoses into a platform to do so much good and to accomplish so much,” Chris Croll, a family friend of the Millers, said Sunday.
Days after her diagnoses almost one year ago, Gabriella learned her wish to visit Paris would be granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In search of a way to thank the organization, Gabriella saw an ad for Macy’s A Million Reasons to Believe campaign, which promised the company would donate $1 to Make-A-Wish for every letter addressed to Santa Claus.
Gabriella, with the help of family, friends and even national media, spread the word about her goal, and prompted 250,000 people to pen letters to Santa Claus.
Her efforts were recognized by some of the area’s most influential people five months ago when she was named Loudoun County’s 2013 Volunteer of the Year. At an awards ceremony in May, Gabriella shared her optimistic outlook with the audience: “You may have a bad day today, but you can have a better tomorrow.”
Her family started a cancer advocacy organization called Smashing Walnuts Foundation. The organization’s name pays tribute to Gabriella’s response to the news that she had a cancerous walnut-sized brain tumor. She and her father bought a bag of walnuts and spent Thanksgiving break with hammers in hand smashing the nuts.
This month, Gabriella added author and college graduate to her list of triumphs. She lent her talents to Inova Loudoun Hospital Foundation board member and author Cindy Chambers to help complete the book “Beamer Learns About Cancer,” part of the Beamer Book Series. She also got to spend a day at Shenandoah University attending classes, working on homework and taking quizzes to earn an honorary bachelor of arts degree.
“You all know that I have cancer and I’m going through some challenges,” Gabriella said upon receiving her degree. “What gets me up every day, especially on the weekdays, because I’m not a morning person, is that I love to go to school and learn.”
During Gabriella’s Santa letter-writing campaign, Lisa Stern, a teacher at Loudoun Country Day School, described Gabriella as a goal-oriented student. “That’s her way…If she has something to work toward, she’ll get it done.”
Stern also described the 10-year-old as compassionate. Two years ago, she grew out her hair to donate it to Locks of Love, and she was often the first to ask how she could help a classmate with schoolwork or to put her arm around a friend who was down, Stern said.
Gabriella’s reach has been made clear in recent weeks on the Make A Wish with Gabriella Facebook page. It now has almost 19,000 followers and thousands of comments from people around the world who have followed her story.
“How special are we all to have known the inspirational story of the girl who used her time here on Earth to the fullest,” a woman from Los Angeles posted. “Changing the world for the better!”
A memorial service is planed for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, at Heritage High School in Leesburg. All are welcome. Children are encouraged to wear bright colors to honor Gabriella's joyous spirit.
Gabriella will be laid to rest in a private graveside ceremony later this week. Donations in her honor can be made to the Smashing Walnuts Foundation at www.smashingwalnuts.com.