Meet Isabella, a dazzling, energetic, and feisty nine-year-old with a wild imagination and a love for volleyball, Girl Scouts, and friends. But behind her beautiful smile, there is a medically fragile child who has endured more pain and suffering than most people do in a lifetime.
At birth, “Bella” was diagnosed with esophageal atresia, three heart defects, and bilateral hearing loss. And this was just the beginning. It was not until six years later, after eight major surgeries and countless minor medical procedures, that the family would know the full extent of Bella’s physical condition.
“On Bella’s first day of first grade, doctors finally found the piece of Bella’s puzzle that explained it all,” shared Stephanie Griggs, Bella’s mom. “Our world came crashing down when we were told Bella has Fanconi anemia.”
Fanconi anemia is an inherited type of anemia that leads to bone marrow failure. Though considered primarily a blood disease, FA may affect all systems of the body. It is a complex and chronic disorder that causes patients to be cancer prone and potentially succumb to cancer at a young age.
Upon diagnosis, the Griggs family searched for resources—anything that would help provide a support system to enhance Bella’s quality of life. They found Team IMPACT, a non-profit organization for children facing life-threatening and chronic illnesses. With Team IMPACT, children are drafted onto local athletic teams and, to the greatest extent possible, become an official member of the team for the duration of their treatment and beyond.
Around the same time, information about Team IMPACT came across the desk of Maranatha’s Athletic Director, Rob Thompson.
“When we were presented with the opportunity to partner with Team IMPACT, we researched the organization and had several conversations with their representatives,” shared Thompson. “We concluded partnering with Team IMPACT fit perfectly with our mission and goals. It gives us a great opportunity to have direct impact on children and families within our community.”
Maranatha, particularly the women’s volleyball team, chose to connect with Team IMPACT and very soon the team met Bella.
“Taking care of Bella keeps us focused on what is important in life, which is ministering to others,” shared middle blocker Lauren Schulz, senior nursing major and Team IMPACT class representative. “Our goal as a team, both on and off the court, is to show others the hope that is in us through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:15). Having Bella as a part of our team reminds us that people matter most.”
On October 8, 2013, Bella became the youngest player ever listed on Maranatha’s volleyball team roster. At a special game during cancer awareness month, Bella was welcomed to the team and introduced to the home team crowd. The applause was overwhelming. She received team apparel, bright pink shoelaces, season passes for her parents, and miscellaneous Maranatha items. She was awarded the #1 team jersey and is now responsible for the team mascot bear, named HOPE, during each match.
“Ministry opportunities are all around us,” shared Regina DeLozier, Maranatha’s women’s volleyball coach. “We have 16 girls on our team, with different majors and minors, who are likeminded in their love for the Lord, their love for the game, and their love for others. Thankfully, God uses all of us to accomplish His purposes. If we are willing, He has someone waiting.”
Bella and the team are in this for the long haul. Within the next two years, Bella will likely require a bone marrow transplant. Relationships are being built now that will help carry her through and draw her to a kind and loving Savior.
“When Bella was drafted by the team, it allowed her the unique opportunity to become an integral member of a team without risking her health and safety,” shared Griggs. “The players are wonderful role models for Bella. It’s like she has 16 new big sisters, all cheering her on in the game of life while she cheers for them on the volleyball court.”
Welcome to the Maranatha family, Bella.