Riley Simmons - the Colony Oak Elementary School fourth grader waging a battle with brain cancer - was all smiles.
Home for the weekend from radiation and mild chemotherapy treatments at UCSF, the angelic 9-year-old flipped the coin between team captains to start the Ripon High JROTC’s annual Army-Navy flag football game with Riverbank High on Friday night.
Riley watched the game in the press booth where her parents, sisters and grandparents had gathered by a heater to keep warm at the competition held in her honor. She wore a gold colored Army knit cap emblazoned with the words “Army Strong” and firmly grasped a JROTC challenge coin she used in the coin toss. The coin is hers now to keep.
Riley was visibly tired. It had been a long day for her, but she managed to show her bubbling spirit and to get out onto the field for the opening of the game as her dad took the microphone and thanked those in the stands for being there on such a cold night.
Ripon Councilman Red Nutt was there to represent the city.
Sgt. Butch Perry with the Ripon High JROTC recalled while placing the knit cap on Riley’s head that there was a time when he too pulled on a similar hat to cover his injuries.
Riley has a knack for choking you up with her never-ending smile. She’s always positive to the nth degree. Her eyes dance in a way that would make anyone melt.
It’s nothing short of amazing. She’s a happy young girl, despite the cards that have been dealt to her. It seems like she accepts it as her primary job to keep everyone around her happy no matter what
Her struggle is all about family. It’s all about a community that is making a huge difference for the young girl who also has friends in the fourth grade at Colony Oak in her corner. A poster with her picture has been placed on the glass door to the school office. It is the first thing a visitor sees when walking in the front door.
Grandparents Sandy and Kurt Hodges along with parents Rick and Gina have pretty much put their lives on hold to watch over their little princess. Older sister Allie, 18, is a student at Stanislaus State University. Now on her winter break she has taken over the household duties stepping up in place of her mom who is most often at the hospital.
Sister Haley, 14, is also doing her part at home. She is a student at Ripon High.
Knowing how much she loves the many pets in the extended family, Grandpa Kurt created a mobile with animals that hangs above her hospital bed. It moves in a circle by the draft of the air conditioner. And she is covered by the quilt made by Colony kindergarten teacher Sherrie Huff that was raffled off for nearly $1,000. It was ultimately given to Riley.
As dad was sitting close to their daughter in the press booth, mom was only feet away saying their daughter wants someday to be a soccer coach like her dad.
Dad Rick said the family continues to be amazed by the series of community events supporting their family during the huge medical interruption in their lives.
“Riley found out at the beginning of the week that she was going to get to flip the coin,” her dad said. “She has been excited about it all week long.”
A real estate appraiser by profession, her dad said he has put all of his accounts on hold for the present. It’s all about being there for Riley who wants so badly to get back to playing soccer.
Mom Gina spoke quietly about the initial shock of their daughter having brain cancer.
“The initial shock was horrible with no word to define it – unimaginable,” she recalled. “We have to take everything one day at a time. We have a great family and great friends. I am trying to enjoy the moment and be more present with my family. Those things that once mattered, don’t really matter any longer.”
“Every morning I have to say this is really happening, it’s not just a nightmare,” she continued. “She makes it easier for all of us with her smiles.”
Her mother said her daughter misses school very much. She also misses her friends and playing soccer. She is now attending school in the hospital where the staff coordinates work with her teacher at Colony Oak. When she eventually gets home from the hospital, a teacher will come to their residence and keep her current with her education.
In March Riley will begin heavier doses of chemo to stave off the return of the cancer cells. A cold or the flu could be life-threatening, so friends are checked for their health before they are allowed to visit.
“There’s a lot of hand washing and use of hand sanitizer,” her mom said.
A supportive account has been established at the Ripon branch of the Bank of the West in her parents’ names to help with the ongoing family needs while her parents are continually at her side in the Bay Area hospital.
There is also a website that has been established by friends for the same purpose. It is www.gofundme.com.