By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- Gabriella Miller may be the youngest graduate of Shenandoah University at just 10 years old, but she is also one of the most accomplished.
Since being diagnosed with pediatric cancer in mid-November of last year, the little girl has raised $275,000 for the Make A Wish Foundation, founded the Smashing Walnuts campaign to raise awareness for pediatric brain cancer, co-authored a book and, finally, graduated college.
She was also recently named the Volunteer of the Year for Loudoun County, where she's from.
When Gabriella was diagnosed with a walnut-sized inoperable brain tumor, her family began symbolically smashing walnuts with a frying pan as a gesture to support her battle against her tumor.
The gesture is now something Gabriella does at a number of fundraising and awareness events at which she is often a speaker. The Smashing Walnuts Foundation is dedicated to finding a cure for childhood cancer.
The strength and demeanor of this small child have overwhelmed Ellyn Miller, the girl's mother.
"She's so darn tiny," she said, watching Gabriella in class at the university Friday afternoon. "But she's so darn powerful."
When her daughter was in the middle of radiation earlier this year, Miller said Gabriella was worried that she wouldn't have enough hair to donate to children who were going through a similar experience.
"What 10-year-old girl who is losing her hair thinks about that?" she asked. "She makes me so proud. I'm exhausted, you know, but I'm not even the one battling cancer."
The family is also involved in monitoring the Make A Wish with Gabriella Facebook page, which has more than 11,000 likes from people all over the world. According to Miller, the site isn't about the number of likes and comments, though.
"Childhood cancer of any kind is horrific, for the children, the parents, the families and the friends involved," she said. "Yet there is simply not enough funding to go toward research to develop proven treatments."
Miller is concerned over the fact that only two treatments are actually approved for children with cancer, and they are several decades old. She said each day in the United State, 36 children are diagnosed with cancer, and seven die from it.
"So the bottom line is that awareness brings funding, funding brings research, research will lead to a cure," she said. "And we will not stop until that cure is found."
After being diagnosed, Gabriella almost immediately qualified for the Make A Wish Foundation. Her three wishes were to travel to Paris, become a published author, and graduate from college.
Gabriella's book, "Beamer Learns About Cancer," was published just a few weeks ago in September, the awareness month for pediatric cancer.
Upon reading it, Shenandoah University President Tracy Fitzsimmons began learning more about Gabriella's story and her ability to inspire others.
So, Fitzsimmons wrote the girl a college acceptance letter, and on Friday Gabriella experienced everything a traditional freshman student would, from getting a student I.D. and visiting a dorm, to taking classes worth 15 credits and earning the right to move the tassel on her graduation cap from right to left.
Gabriella addressed a large crowd in SU's Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre as she stood on a platform allowing her to speak into the microphone on stage.
"I want to thank all of you for having me. I had a wonderful day," she said. "But now I want the next eight years to go by quickly so I can come back and learn more!"
"As you probably know, I have cancer," she continued. "I'm also not really a morning person. But you know what gets me up and going every day? It's that I get to go to school and learn. I am so thankful for my education."
Gabriella received her honorary Bachelor of Arts degree, and beamed as she held it over her head for all to see.
Fitszimmons noted, "There are some in this world who say that it's all about professional training, and not about broad thinking. I say the world has a lot to learn from Gabriella."
To learn more about Gabriella and how to join the fight against pediatric cancer, go to www.smashingwalnuts.org or search "Make A Wish with Gabriella" on Facebook.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org