Disney wish comes true for Palm Bay girl fighting cancer
Brevard high school senior raises money for 7-year-old's Disney trip
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – A 7-year-old girl fighting cancer will trek over to Disney World this weekend, thanks to a fundraiser from a Brevard County high school senior, Local 6 news partner Florida Today reports.
Isabella "Bella" Huffman says she's most looking forward to plunging into the pool.
Trekking over to Disney World and swimming among vacationers may not sound terribly out of the ordinary for Central Florida. But when you're a 7-year-old who went from the everyday routine of school to suddenly fighting cancer, pleasures such as this really don't seem so simple anymore.
They mark a milestone.
"We have not been swimming since we were diagnosed," said Sarah Rogell, Bella's mother, of her daughter. The Palm Bay girl was diagnosed in March with Burkitt's leukemia, a rare, aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
During a recent visit to her home, Bella added that not only is she eager to get in the water, she wants "to do a back jump in."
She and family will be headed to Disney's Art of Animation Resort Friday , giving the little girl a chance to splash in what Disney touts as their largest pool resortwide (that pumps in underwater music) — plus two days in the Magic Kingdom.
It was all spearheaded by Alicia Ortiz, a West Shore Jr./Sr. High student. All seniors at the school are required to complete a project designed to help them develop life skills and character.
Where they take it is up to them.
For her project, Ortiz wanted to make a difference in the life of a child with cancer.
Ortiz, 18, said she raised $5,200 through a website, car washes, a dance at Eau Gallie Civic Center, T-shirts, wristbands, asking local businesses for donations and more. (The Magic Kingdom tickets and MagicBands were donated by Disney, Ortiz said.)
Her teacher, Jessica Hartman, said the ultimate goal is for students to grow as a person and develop life skills, as well as character, as they complete their project throughout the year.
"While her classmates might be doing the bare minimum to complete this 'tedious' project, she's got several components that far exceed the project expectations," Hartman said.
Ortiz's mom, Anali Leis, said her daughter has always been caring.
"She doesn't take the easy way out," Leis said of Ortiz, who is president of Spanish Honor Society, secretary for the student government association, involved in the graduation committee and more. "I was a little bit worried when she said she needed to raise all the funding, but she put her mind to it. And I believed her 100 percent. I knew she was going to be able to do it."
Ortiz, 18, who says she's always liked the Make a Wish Foundation, didn't want to do something to simply better herself.
"My cousin had passed away from a cancer about five years ago, so it's always kind of been something that I wanted to pay forward," Ortiz said .
But due to medical confidentiality issues, a Make a Wish collaboration couldn't happen.
"I could go through a personal connection," Ortiz said, explaining she put the call out via the PTA, asking people if they knew of any families with a child with cancer interested in letting a student do a good deed for him or her.
When Nancy Fullem of West Melbourne saw something via Facebook, she felt compelled to react. Active with Candlelighters of Brevard, Fullem had lost her own son, Benjamin, 8, to leukemia eight years ago. She'd been a source of support throughout Bella's diagnosis and illness and urged Rogell to let her recommend Bella for an opportunity.
"I didn't really know what it was, but I trusted her," Rogell said.
By October, 10 candidate names were submitted to Ortiz. "I just randomly chose, because I didn't want to pick anyone," Ortiz admitted.
She fished out Bella's name.
"All the time she was in the hospital, she wanted to go back to the Disney resort and she wanted to go swimming at a Disney resort," Rogell said, explaining Bella spent most of the time between her March diagnosis and August getting chemotherapy at Nemours Children's Hospital. "She loves staying at hotels. Loves staying in hotels."
Sometimes, it's just returning to the simple things. Things perhaps taken for granted before cancer came into their lives.
Bella, who on Friday marks six months in remission, is starting to see tufts of her brunette locks grow back. Shy to speak to a FLORIDA TODAY reporter at first, she warmed up quickly when quizzed about her favorite attraction — it's "Mickey Ghosts," she said, of the Haunted Mansion — and new puppy, a Siberian Husky named Frankie.
"Can I show you a picture when?" she asks, whipping out her Kindle to show off her "selfie" from when she first had her head shaved. (After chemo began, she complained to her mom that she was "molting" like a bird, so she and Rogell both lopped off their hair, 14 and 13 inches, respectively.)
"The longest stretch that she was home through treatment was three days," Rogell said, telling how Bella would spend 21 days in the hospital, come home for 24 hours and go right back in. "We spent a lot of time in the hospital...Every day's a blessing. She is one tough cookie."
And Ortiz's gesture is hard to put into words. "Just to have somebody, especially a student, who cares to do something" has been astounding.
Ortiz, who has grown close to Bella and her family since adopting this project, will be joining them this weekend, taking plenty of photos and video to document the fun. The experience has given her a perspective on her life's path, too, as she looks toward college.
Fullem, who helped facilitate things and never met Ortiz in person, said she's always told her kids one thing.
"The only thing we're called to do in this life is to make a difference," Fullem said. "Whether it's a difference in one life or 100 lives, we never know."
"It's always very humbling, especially teenagers and young kids who want to make a difference and set an example for their peers," Fullem said. "We never know whose life we're going to cross. I have this feeling that Alicia's going to make a difference — not just in Bella's life, but in others to come."
To donate, go to GoFundMe.com.
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