How A Brave Little Girl Became A Hero To Us All

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On January 2nd, 2012 I received a phone call from two of my closest friends who at the time worked at the American Cancer Society.  They were pulling together the details for a surprise  “Sweet Sixteen” party for a young girl who was battling cancer. They asked me if my company would be willing to donate some personalized party favors for her party, and of course I agreed without any hesitation. I really wanted to be there, but unfortunately I was unable to attend the actual party because the date conflicted with a work trip. I thought about this young girl and her story as I went to sleep that night. My heart was full knowing that that I had such caring and compassionate friends and that this sweet, young girl was going to experience the surprise of a lifetime made possible by her family and friends.

One year later (in 2013), The Pediatric Cancer Foundation was hosting their annual “Day of Pampering” where twelve girls are hand-selected to enjoy a day of pampering and shopping with their mothers. As a company, we love to volunteer our time with PCF, so on the day of the event, Natalya and I had the pleasure of escorting a young girl by the name of Melissa and her mother Jo to Neiman Marcus where they were treated to manicures, makeovers, and lunch. The girls all had a great time picking out outfits to wear for their upcoming runway debuts in the Fashion Funds The Cure fashion show, also hosted by The Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

Immediately upon meeting her, Melissa had already made quite an impression on me. She was wise beyond her years as a result of life experiences – ones she had already been through at the young age of 16. She had the brightest blue eyes, an adorable face full of freckles, and a smile that could brighten anyone’s day. But don’t let her sweetness fool you. Melissa was incredibly fierce and perhaps the strongest person that I have ever met. She was very outspoken about her goals and dreams to help END childhood cancer, and she wanted this with every ounce of her being. I had the opportunity to spend the entire day with Melissa and her mom and because of this, my life has been forever changed.

After the Day of Pampering, Melissa and I continued to keep in touch with each other via Facebook and text messaging. A few months later, I found out that she was back at All Children’s Hospital so I surprised her with a visit. I wanted her to know just how much she was loved by everyone she met that day and how much she had impacted my life. What I did not know was the impact that she would have on my life as I walked through the hospital doors on that day.

I was not sure exactly what to expect when I walked into her hospital room. However, I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of love, calmness and peace that I felt upon entering. Two of Melissa’s girlfriends were visiting and were painting their nails on the couch by the window. They were completely content in spending quality time with one another. Melissa’s mom, Jo and her sister, Jennifer were right by her side and welcomed me in right away.  I was beyond touched by the level of support and friendship that was shown in that room.  Through all of the hardships they were experiencing, this family’s bond was undeniable. Here was a child who was going through so much pain and suffering, but yet she was still experiencing life’s most precious gifts: extraordinary friendship and love. I felt so incredibly blessed to have been there and to have witnessed all of the love shown in that moment.

We talked about all kinds of things; life, school and jobs. After chatting for a while, Melissa asked me what I did for work. I told her all about my passion for promotional products, creativity and branding. All of a sudden, she stopped in her tracks and said, “Mom, what is the name of that girl who supplied the promotional products for my Sweet Sixteen Party?” Right then it struck me. This was the same young girl that I was supposed to meet a year earlier when I received an invitation to her party. Now there I was, unknowingly, in her hospital room, but now as friends. Everyone in the room paused for a moment to take it all in. We all sat there in awe and couldn’t help but to acknowledge that it must have been fate that brought us together. I felt like I was witnessing God’s work right before my eyes. Right then and there, I just knew that He had brought Melissa and I together for a reason.

In the time that I had the pleasure of knowing Melissa, she made such a profound impact on my life. I feel so lucky to have had God put her in my path-not once, but twice. I know that I am only one of thousands of people who have been majorly impacted by this young girl’s beautiful life. Today I would like to share with you three important life lessons that I have learned throughout the course of our short but sweet friendship.

1. Live Your Life. A wise man named Benjamin Franklin once said, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Sadly, some people don’t experience life with any type of vivacity or meaning. Melissa was NOT one of those people. Melissa was fighting an uphill battle, but boy was her life rich in love and experiences! She spent her days truly living life and got to experience some really neat moments (such as sporting events and trips) but more  importantly, she was constantly surrounded by so many loving family members and true friends. These are the things that make life worth living.  None of us know when our days here on Earth might be up. For that reason, it is absolutely essential to embrace each day and to live life to the fullest each and every day and not to take one single breath of air for granted.  Please do not ever lose sight of what is really important. Melissa showed me all of this through the way that she lived her life each day. Through all of her physical pain and agony, she fought with all of her might for a life well-lived. Her enthusiasm for life was both beautiful and inspirational.

2. Never Give Up. This little girl had a fight in her like no other. She was willing to try anything in terms of getting well, no matter what it took. She and her family often had to travel far and wide for medical care. Furthermore, she took part in trials and was even willing to try experimental treatment drugs in hopes of getting well. She often talked about her desire to be a doctor when she grew up so that she could do everything in her power to find a cure for childhood cancer. She took a very challenging experience-and instead of letting it break her down-she used it to lift others up. Day in and day out, she turned her negative situation into a positive one by dedicating her life to helping others. This is the story of a little girl who, in a time when it would have been easy to show weakness, chose to demonstrate strength and bravery instead!

3. Your Family is Your Legacy. A few weeks after Melissa’s passing, The Pediatric Cancer Foundation hosted their annual “Brinner of Hope” where they honored Melissa’s life. Each day that has gone by since her untimely passing, her family’s will to keep her memory alive and to fight for her cause has been constant. This is a steady reminder that there is nothing more important than family.  I know that Rich, Jo and Jennifer are grieving beyond belief every day. But if we all take a lesson out of Melissa’s book, I know that she would want nothing more than for her family to live their lives rich with fun experiences, full of love, laughter and happiness. Her family was her rock. In other challenging circumstances such as these, I have seen families deteriorate-but not hers! Her mom, dad and sister have come together and have been a shining example of what families should aim to be-through both the best of times and the worst of times. I am just as honored to know them as I am to have known Melissa.

Sadly, Melissa lost her battle to cancer and passed away 8 months ago. But I know that she is in a much better place where she is free from all of the pain and suffering. She has taught so many of us what it means to live with passion and intent, to love wholeheartedly, to have faith even when it is nearly impossible and to value your family and togetherness above all.

My thoughts and prayers are with Melissa’s family constantly, and I know that the rest of our community feels the same way. From knowing Melissa and the way she lived her life, I can only imagine that there is nothing more in this world that she would want than to see her loved ones smiling and enjoying life.

To any of you who would like to join me in helping make Melissa’s dream come true, I encourage you to help in any way that you can. Whatever you can spare would be greatly appreciated-whether it is ten dollars, fifty dollars, or more. You can also get involved in one of the many inspiring events hosted by PCF.

With every donation to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, you can pick up a mug with Melissa’s favorite saying and symbol.  My goal is to not only continue the fight, but to help Melissa’s family, and the Tampa Bay Community in making sure that her memory lives on forever.

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