I thought it would be another simple feature story, as I jumped on the bus, heading to Washington Elementary School in Santa Barbara, CA. I had no idea I would leave with such a strong memory, reminding me of the true meaning of happiness, for the rest of my life.
This is a story about one of my most memorable assignments as a reporter.
I stood next to Gwendolyn’s mother, Victoria, and watched as the whole class surrounded the 5-year-old girl in her wheelchair. Everybody wanted to talk to her, and hug her. Her eyes lit up. I’m sure she smiled too, but I was mesmerized by her eyes.
I have seen people explore breathtaking places, win ridiculous amount of money, fancy cars, etc. But, never have I seen eyes express such happiness as when Gwendolyn’s schoolmates surrounded her in smiles.
“She is very happy right now,” I remember Victoria Strong said to me as she watched her little girl circled by her friends.
“I can see that,” I whispered back, still caught by Gwendolyn’s eyes.
I had walked up to the school, and was greeted by a class of fifth-graders. I asked the teacher for Coleman Mortensen, the 10-year-old I was there to interview that late December day in 2012.
Coleman had won a ‘Dear Santa’ contest by writing a beautiful rhyme. Besides winning two gift certificates, he also got to choose a nonprofit organization to receive $500, donated by Cox.
He had chosen the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation.
That’s how I got to meet 5-year-old Gwendolyn Strong, and learned about Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
SMA type 1, also named Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, is a neuromuscular disorder which causes weakness and damage to the tissue. Children affected are not able to walk, eat or breath on their own. It is the number one genetic cause of death for infants and young children.
I was saddened to hear when Gwendolyn passed in 2015, 7 years and 10 months old. But I will never forget her and her eyes. She reminded me to cherish what’s valuable in life - love, family and friends.
You know those memes that say "Find someone who looks at you like [...] looks at [...]?" Well, I always say: Find someone that looks at you like Gwendolyn looks at her friends.
August is awareness month for SMA, and I will therefore donate to the Gwendolyn Strong Foundation, run by Gwendolyn’s parents, Victoria and Bill Strong. They taught me something too: Never Give Up.
They raise money and awareness to fight SMA. They help out families with children diagnosed with SMA through their community grants. 100 per cent of the donations goes straight to science and families in need. They are fighting a war against SMA, and they will never give up.
I hope I encouraged you to learn more, and maybe even donate or spread the word.
It doesn’t have to be big news to be important. I know that goes against the journalistic requirements for a story to end up on the front page, or even at the top of Google’s search engine. But, in this case it was important to me, the writer, and the community. And as an independent writer, with a blog as my tool, I have the power to help spread the word.
Links to learn more:
The Gwendolyn Strong Foundation