“We’ve never found friends like this before.”
It wouldn’t surprise you to hear this among parents at a Little League game.
But one place you might not expect to hear it? The halls of a pediatric hospital.
That’s what makes Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health unique. In the midst of babies born prematurely or parents receiving a potentially life-altering diagnosis for their children, Riley is a place that inspires hope and brings people together.
“There’s a ‘cause connection’ among families here,” said Kate Sarlitto, Communications Process Manager for Riley Children’s Foundation, the hospital’s fundraising arm. “Kids diagnosed with a serious condition often feel they are different. At Riley, they meet kids who are facing similar challenges.”
Bella Simons knew Riley was a special place before her admission three years ago. Simons has always had a servant’s heart. She held her first lemonade stand fundraiser at age 9, has compiled care packages for sick children through Project Sunshine and helped raise awareness about human trafficking during a mission trip to Cambodia at just 13.
“It feels good to give back,” said Simons.
But service took on a far more personal meaning for Simons in 2016. On the first day of her sophomore year of high school, Simons experienced an excruciating headache she describes as “just insane.” Bouts of nausea and exhaustion soon followed.
After two months of physician visits, Simons was diagnosed with craniopharyngioma, a brain tumor on the pituitary gland. The tumor has an incredibly rare diagnosis rate of 1 in every 500,000 people.
“Bella had always been very healthy, so this news was a complete shock for her and our family,” said Tasha Simons, Bella’s mother.
Bella and Tasha temporarily relocated to the Ronald McDonald House in Winfield, Illinois, from their hometown of Carmel, Indiana, as Bella underwent treatment. Bella’s father, Todd, became a frequent Chicago commuter while continuing to work in Indiana.
Bella enjoyed movie nights and craft activities at the Ronald McDonald House, a welcome distraction from her daily treatments. It inspired her to help other children facing medical challenges.
That fall, she underwent surgery at Riley to drain the life-threatening tumor. Bella’s road to recovery has included additional surgeries, hyperbolic oxygen chamber treatments, radiation sessions and more. It’s also involved setbacks, including a stroke in November 2018.
If you think that stopped Simons from helping others, you don’t know her.
From her hospital bed, Simons organized a holiday toy drive benefitting Riley and the Ronald McDonald House. It was simply the latest of her charitable projects, including serving as a Make-A-Wish speaker and a 2017 Riley Champion.
“Something good came from something painful,” her mother reflects.
Bella also supports Riley through the Miracle Network Dance Marathon program. In 1991, Indiana University held the first Miracle Network Dance Marathon in memory of Ryan White, a 13-year-old who contracted AIDS through contaminated blood transfusions. Students collected pledges and stayed awake and on their feet for up to 36 consecutive hours to benefit Riley.
Recognizing the success of the students’ fundraising efforts, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals adopted and expanded the IU Dance Marathon model. Today, there are more than 400 marathons benefitting 170 CMN Hospitals partners. The events have raised more than $250 million. Riley Hospital is the only CMN Hospitals partner in Indiana.
Indiana holds several Miracle Network Dance Marathon records. Indiana University hosts the nation’s largest college marathon. Carmel High School is the nation’s largest high school event. Simons contributed $5,550 to Carmel’s efforts during her senior year, making her Riley’s top 2017-2018 high school fundraiser.
“Supporting Riley is meaningful because they saved my life – twice,” said Simons.
In 2011, Regions Bank launched a campaign to support Riley Children’s Foundation through the Indiana University, Purdue University and IUPUI Riley Dance Marathons. Bank customers and associates have donated $82,600.06 – every cent counts – to make Regions the largest Riley Dance Marathons corporate donor.
The marathons immediately resonated with bank associates. Indianapolis branch manager Roxanne Whitley-Anderson had always been supportive, but the project became more personal in 2018 when her 3-year-old grandson, Jaicion, became a Riley Kid with a Stage 3 Neuroblastoma diagnosis.
Whitley-Anderson recalls Jaicion’s physician drawing each treatment step on a napkin to explain it to their family as they navigated an unexpected road. She is grateful for Riley’s supportive atmosphere.
“From the parking lot attendants to the receptionists to the volunteers and, of course, the nurses and doctors, everyone at Riley is first class all the way,” said Whitley-Anderson. She and her family recently received the best possible news: Jaicion’s recent CT scan shows no evidence of disease.
Today, Bella Simons is thriving as a freshman at Marian University. She received a $5,000 scholarship from the Ronald McDonald House of Indiana to help cover tuition and made the Dean’s List.
Asked about her career aspirations, Simons shares, “I would like to work in public relations, maybe for Riley – or maybe for Regions Bank!”
The bank has dedicated one of its Riley wagons at the hospital in Simons’ honor, so she’s well on her way.
Like Bella and the dancers who stay on their feet until the marathon is over, Regions has no plans to stop supporting this project anytime soon. This year’s campaign goal is to surpass the $100,000 mark. Records are not only played at the Dance Marathon. They’re also meant to be broken.