Nicknames can say a lot about a person, but for Danville youngster Grace Bennett (11), earning a handle like “The Mayor” at the age of four barely scratches the surface.
She was recently named a 2018 Riley Champion during a Feb. 1 ceremony held at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Grace is one of eight kids selected by the Riley Children’s Foundation, the arm of fundraising for the hospital and its founding organization.
“Being a Riley champion means a lot to me because I’ve been nominated each year but they waited for me to get a little older. It gives me a platform to share my story with others,” Grace said.
Since she was 4-years old, Grace has partnered with fellow Riley kid and Danville resident, Maeci Young, in their fundraising campaign “Gracie and Maeci Give Back.”
In many ways, she’s your average 11-year-old girl. She likes playing softball, hanging out with friends and watching funny videos on Youtube, some even of herself. However, she’s overcome challenges most kids never have to face. At 3 years-old, Grace was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She underwent three surgeries and two years of chemotherapy.
“That’s when I realized what a big heart she has,” said Stephanie Bennett, Grace’s mom. “She was going through her own treatment at the time and was shy at first, but as time went on, she really opened up. The nurses just brought something out in her. She would walk around and if another kid was crying, she would tell them that it was okay. She got the nickname ‘The Mayor’ because everyone knew her. She would grab her little pole and make rounds.”
While Grace was going through treatment, she made it clear to her mother that she wanted to help other kids and their families.
“We were on her Wish Trip and she said she needed to give back. They started a softball tournament to fund Wish Trips for local families and set a goal of $100,000. They did it in five years.”
While the softball tournament proved to be a homerun, she was just leading off. Grace has also held dance marathons and an annual toy drive that collected over 5,000 toys last Christmas.
“I liked seeing the looks on their (Riley patients’) faces when I passed out all of those toys,” Grace said. “Whenever I would hand out gift cards to kids, they had a straight face, but when they saw how many gift cards there were, their faces lit up with joy and I was very happy about that.”
In 2013, the Bennetts faced a new challenge as Grace started having seizures caused by the tumor in her right frontal lobe. In addition, the family was dealing with the recent death of Stephanie’s mother and Grace’s grandmother.
“She was really my strength through that,” Stephanie remembers. “’Grace said to me, ‘Mom, I’m going to be okay. You don’t need to cry.’ And it’s supposed to be the other way around. I’m the mom… She was always happy and full of joy and life even through her treatment. She is always thinking about everyone else. As a mom, it makes me very proud because you want your kid to grow up kind-hearted
Riley Pediatric Neurosurgeon Jodi Smith, M.D. was able to remove most of the tumor.
In 2014, Grace was given an American Red Cross Humanitarian Award.
“She used to say, ‘I don’t know what the big deal is, I’m just a regular kid,’ Stephanie remembers.
“Now that she’s older, she is starting to understand what her story means to people. When they were getting ready to announce her name at the Humanitarian Red Cross Awards, she looked over at me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘this is really a big deal isn’t it.’
Grace says she’s looking forward to continuing her work as a 2018 Riley Champion.
“Riley has done so much for me and I just wanted to give back to them. Show them how much I care about them.”
Her mom said she’s even got a new nickname around the hospital.
Story by Chris Cornwall