Warning: This is a story about a remarkable young lady, who might just change how you think about life. She has already changed the lives of her family, her community and countless children in Minnesota and Wisconsin. You could be next. Read on, if you dare.
Alannah Gillis, a 7-year-old first-grader at Webster Elementary School in Webster, WI, was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma in August. “Neuroblastoma” is a word that’s largely unfamiliar in rural Wisconsin. But once Alannah was diagnosed with it, her community became increasingly familiar with it and banded together to do something to fight it. And they also became increasingly familiar with Alannah and her indomitable spirit and strong faith.
Potential financial hardships came with Alannah’s diagnosis. Alannah’s grandmother Sherry Gillis shared the news with her boss, Jason Hansen, owner of Zia Louisa’s Italian Restaurant in Webster and a close friend of the Gillis family. Jason got busy right away to plan a benefit to assist Alannah’s parents with the inevitable medical expenses her treatment would incur.
Then something unexpected happened. Elmer “Jay” Emery, a St. Croix Chippewa Tribal Council member, happened to drop by Zia Louisa’s for a pizza. Jason Hansen mentioned Alannah’s diagnosis to Mr. Emery and asked if one of the St. Croix Casinos might be able to donate a hotel package for the benefit he was planning. Jay Emery immediately offered to personally donate a trip to Disney World for the family. Emery’s offer was accepted, but that was just the beginning.
Mr. Emery went to work, mobilizing the Tribal Council of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin and the General Managers at the three St. Croix Casinos. A full-scale fundraiser, co-sponsored by Zia Louisa’s and the St. Croix Casinos, was born. “For us, it was all about Alannah and her family,” Mr. Emery said. “The St. Croix Casinos set a minimum fund-raising goal of $10,000 but hoped that community response would help us raise a lot more than that.”
The casinos’ part in the fundraiser took place over 19 days in September. The three casinos sold a special turkey wrap sandwich for $3, gave guests slot match play for donating cash, sold Alannah Gillis wristbands for $2 and donated a quarter from each domestic beer sale, with all the proceeds going to Alannah’s family. The fundraiser culminated in a bike run and benefit spaghetti dinner/auction/raffle at Zia Louisa’s on September 22.
People from all over the Midwest, many of them strangers to the Gillis family, contributed to the fundraiser at the St. Croix Casinos. And the wide net of community involvement broadened even farther on the day of the September 22 benefit. “Ninety percent of the people who attended our benefit were strangers to me,” said Alannah’s mother Angela Peterson. “For one day, we were all part of a larger community helping one another.”
Jay Emery echoed Angela’s comments. “It was wonderful to see all of us, Native and non-Native, work together for a common cause,” he said, “because when you get down to it, we are all one.” On September 22, Native American singers sang songs of healing, people from the Webster area feasted on spaghetti and bought raffle tickets. Everyone worked together help Alannah and her family.
Remember that $10,000 goal set by the three casinos? What happened was remarkable in every sense of the word. The casinos’ contribution to Alannah’s fundraiser totaled $87, 236. The funds collected at the September 22 benefit brought the grand total to more than $98,000. End of story, right? Instead, just the beginning.
That’s when Alannah went to work to change lives, first by capturing the hearts of the staff and her fellow patients at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, where she was undergoing treatment, then by donating funds to Star Studio, the Children’s Hospital in-house TV channel. “Kids who are receiving chemo and other treatments at Children’s love the TV channel,” Alannah’s mother said. “They can watch programs geared to them and play games to win prizes.” When Alannah found out that the channel had temporarily run out of prizes, she donated all of the proceeds from her fundraiser’s wristband sales to Star Studio. For more information on Alannah’s donation to the Children’s Hospital, check out http://www.childrensmn.org/blog/kidshealth/2012/10/generosity-acts-of-kindness-cancer-diagnosis.
Alannah wasn’t finished paying it forward: On November 7, she donated $17,700 back to the Children and Families Fund of the St. Croix tribe. Alannah’s donation will help to fund two Christmas parties for more than 600 St. Croix tribal children.
For Alannah, giving back is who she is. “I like to be nice,” Alannah said. Her mother said it better: “She’s just beyond thoughtful. The word ‘thoughtful’ doesn’t even cover it. She has the biggest heart of any kid and adult I know.”
There’s an old saying that what goes around comes around: There’s good news on the recovery front. Alannah’s treatments are working. Her cancer cell levels have dropped 85% since her diagnosis in August, but there’s still a long way to go. She has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy and started her fifth round of chemotherapy on November 9.
So far, chemotherapy hasn’t slowed Alannah down. Most children who had undergone four rounds of chemotherapy would be essentially bedridden and would be receiving nutrition through feeding tubes. Not Alannah. On November 7, the day that Alannah made Christmas a lot happier for the children of the St. Croix tribe, she was sitting at a table at Zia Louisa’s eating pizza and drinking kiddie cocktails while considering where her next charitable contribution could be made.
Alannah still faces challenges: Once her chemotherapy treatments are finished, she will need surgery to remove her brain tumor. She’s not asking for help from anyone, but the community that has come together to support her is still actively fundraising for the Gillis family. Donations are being accepted at any US Bank under the Benefit for Alannah Gillis account. To check on the progress of Alannah’s treatment and to read more about this remarkable young lady, visit her Caring Bridge website at caringbridge.org/visit/alannahgillis. But be forewarned: She just might change your life.