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With fundraising gala, Gabriella Miller’s legacy lives on

Gabriella Miller was just 10 years old when she died from brain cancer, but in her short life became a staunch advocate for pediatric cancer research. On Jan. 25, her parents will host a gala in her memory to raise money for the cause. —Courtesy photo
Several days before her untimely Oct. 26 death from brain cancer, 10-year-old Gabriella Miller, unable to speak, signed one of her final instructions to her parents, Mark and Ellyn Miller, using her right hand, the only thing she could move.

Gabriella had hoped to have a black, white and pink themed birthday party. She had told her parents that if she didn't make it, she wanted them to have an event to raise money. On her deathbed, she reminded her parents in slow signs that she still wanted her them to hold a black, white and pink party to raise money for cancer research, a decidedly serious endeavor splashed with a touch of girlhood.

“Even two days before she died, she was still thinking about others,” Ellyn Miller said through tears.

And so the “Cracking the Cure” Gala was born.

Hosted at the National Conference Center Jan. 25, the inaugural event comes just 12 days after what would have been the Gabriella's 11th birthday. The gala will feature all the amenities expected of traditional galas, including dessert, dancing and music, but will have an underlying mission: finding a cure for childhood cancer. To drive the message home, the gala will be punctuated with guest speakers, including Dr. Javad Nazarian, a children's brain cancer researcher at Children's National Hospital who received Gabriella's brain upon her death.

The money raised at the gala will go toward funding a grant for Nazarian's research.

Miller recalled taking a tour of Nazarian's office and his excitement of receiving a grant.

“It was $100,000,” Miller said, just a small drop with regards to funding.

One of the distinguishing features of the gala, Ellyn noted, is that it's not just for adults; there will be a gala for kids age 9 to 17 running simultaneously. Ellyn originally planned for it to be an adult event, but changed her mind at the behest of a family friend.

“My friend told her kids about the event, and her daughter started talking about going,” Ellyn recalled. “She told her daughter, 'I don't think you're invited.'”

“Megan was livid,” Ellyn laughed.

Her daughter pointed out that she was friends with Gabriella and that the gala raised money for childhood cancer, so of course kids should be welcome, an idea Ellyn called “brilliant.”

The gala is just another notch in the legacy that the young Leesburg girl has already cultivated, beginning shortly after discovering she had cancer.
Doctors diagnosed Gabriella Nov. 13, 2012 with an inoperable brain tumor.

“When Gabriella was diagnosed with brain cancer, my husband and I didn't even have a chance to take a breath before they told us, 'it's terminal on diagnosis,'” Ellyn said.

Gabriella was estimated to have 9 to 12 months to live.

Researching the disease following their daughter's diagnosis, the Millers learned that 36 kids are diagnosed with cancer a day, 13 of them with brain cancer. Seven kids die from cancer every day. And still, pediatric cancers combined account for less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute's research budget.

“That is not okay. Why didn't I know that?” Miller said. “Gabriella became a huge advocate for cancer research.”

The whole Miller clan did, and they got those around them to be as well.

In the December following her diagnosis, she mobilized people to write 240,000 letters to Santa, dropping them off at Macy's to raise $240,000 dollars for the Make-a-Wish foundation. Floored, Macy's added an additional $25,000 to the donation. For her efforts, Gabriella was named Loudoun's 2012 Volunteer of the Year.

Later, the Millers would host a walkathon, raising $6,000 dollars for cancer research. They also collected toiletries and clothes for families stuck at the hospital as their children battled cancer.

Eventually, the Millers decided to start an organization of their own. They called it Smashing Walnuts, an homage to the hours the Millers spent destroying walnuts, meant to signify them beating Gabriella's nut-sized tumor.

In her last months, Gabriella was the feature story for several news programs. She also wrote a children's book on cancer, spoke in Washington, D.C., traveled to Paris on a Make-a-Wish trip and earned an honorary degree from Shenandoah University.

After her death, her parents went to the Capitol and watched the House of Representatives pass the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, a bipartisan bill that authorize $13 million per year for 10 years for pediatric research by redirecting funds designated for political party conventions.

The gala really continues Gabriella's efforts, the Millers say, including raising money and awareness while celebrating their daughter. Most of all, it follows Gabriella's mantra of “less talking, more doing.”


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