Reporter's Notebook: Isabella may be gone, but her happiness lives in all of us

Published: Jun. 27, 2013 at 2:02 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 28, 2013 at 3:25 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Editor's Note: WBTV's Molly Grantham reflects on the life of Isabella Santos, a year after Isabella's battle with cancer.

Friday will be an emotional day for one remarkable south Charlotte family.
Isabella Santos died June 28th, 2012. Her parents, Stuart and Erin, have gone 365 days without hugging, touching or talking with their oldest daughter.  She was 2 when diagnosed with cancer.  She was 8 when she lost her courageous battle.

I met Isabella in the earlier years of her fight. Her parents invited me and Sarah Smith, a WBTV editor and photographer, into their home. They wanted to get the word out about neuroblastoma even if it meant letting a reporter show their daughter as an example of who the disease is hurting. I look back now and wonder what they must have been thinking as we lugged all that equipment into their house. They were amazing; beyond welcoming.  But no one wants their little princess to have some long-named illness, let alone share the pain of that with all of Charlotte.

And yet, Stuart and Erin were open and kind and real. That's hard to do even when the topic doesn't rip at your heartstrings.  And Isabella… wow. Isabella was a knockout that day. She was gorgeous and lit up inside. She showed us her pictures from Disney World and the dozens of dolls in her room. She went through her closet to find her favorite pair of pink sneakers for Sarah's camera. Isabella had sparkling eyes andbubbling-over smarts and, somehow, a hospitable toddler.  Photos of her bald head and the scar on her scalp were clues she had medical obstacles, but her spirit wasn't bruised in the slightest. After talking with Stuart and Erin from the comfort of their couch and hearing their intense resolve and upbeat personalities and endless hope, you knew exactly where Isabella got it.  
Over the years I was blessed to reconnect with the Santos's many times.  Isabella's hair grew back.  She had some great moments in remission. She also had setbacks. One year she became the face for a WBTV Blood Drive. In another, she approached me at a Make-a-Wish auction I was co-hosting and stole the show by getting on stage to give away items. A few years ago her parents set up "The Isabella Santos Foundation". They decided to host an annual 5k. I still love the video of Isabella in a big yellow t-shirt "practicing" running down the neighborhood street beside her dad, giving us video to help promote the foundation's inaugural run.

So many people in Charlotte became touched by Isabella's huge heart, Stuart called the night she died. I was at work. He sounded calm. He was clear and reasonable. He and Erin knew it had been coming.  I don't know how one makes those kinds of calls; I know getting them leaves you frozen. Stuart sounded like a focused and loving dad. He said he wanted to make sure people knew his daughter might have lost the fight… but her family was never going to give up on finding a cure.

If this past year is any indication, neuroblastoma doesn't stand a chance against the Isabella Santos Foundation.
Stuart and Erin and their troops of friends and supporters are fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.  What they take in, they give back. I've seen it multiple times in one short year. They're helping raise money for research, for people and they give to great causes.  Through their website, social media and blogs, Stuart and Erin are inspiring people across the area, state and world.  I don't say that lightly. Erin is an unbelievably beautiful writer – read some of her entries here.

On Friday, the Isabella Santos Foundation is encouraging anyone -- anyone! -- to do a PURPLE balloon release in Isabella's memory. Release it anytime and anywhere, but they ask you to please email a picture of the release to, or post it to Facebook or on Twitter.
In addition, the Foundation wants Friday be a "Pay It Forward for Isabella" Day. They're encouraging you to perform an act of kindness in Isabella's memory to honor her life.

They also have this cool #ISF3wishes campaign. Take a "selfie" listing your three wishes for kids with cancer.  Doesn't matter how you show your wishes -- have fun with it. Write them on a poster, scratch them in the dirt, use lipstick on your bathroom mirror. Whatever. Be creative. They got the idea because before she passed, Isabella herself made a list:

1. Beat Cancer. 
2. Grow my hair. 
3. Live my dreams.

I get on the Isabella Santos Foundation Facebook page every other day or so to see what other awesome wishes are being wished and thrown out into the kharma of the world. (To see my "selfie" and get more info on this wish campaign, go here.)

Hopefully some of these things will help bring happiness to a story of a little girl who brought happiness to so many.

I can safely say from knowing the Santos's in the small ways I am lucky enough to know them, they will continue to raise awareness to make even more wonderful things come from their daughter's short life.

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