This summer, THON members said goodbye to 5-year-old Isabella “Bella” Rinier — and those involved in the world’s largest student-run philanthropy said saying goodbye never gets easier.
One group that Bella impacted was Penn State a cappella group “Blue in the Face” which was Bella’s THON group that supported her. For three members, Bella became a huge part of their lives and the loss deeply affected each of them differently.
Bella, who died in August, was diagnosed Oct. 27, 2009 at the age of 3 with neuroblastoma, as previously reported. This type of cancer attaches itself to nerve endings that begin forming tumors.
Blue in the Face was paired with the Rinier family back in the fall of 2010 after the group heard about the family from a friend of the group, said Jamie Wilcox, current Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon chair for Blue in the Face.
Wilcox had no idea just how much this little girl was going to change her life.
“It’s very rare that you are able to meet your hero, but I was lucky to have met mine,” said Wilcox.
Wilcox first met Bella at the groups’ winter concert back in December 2010. After the concert, the family went backstage and the group sang Bella’s favorite song of the night, “Bad Romance,” by Lady Gaga while Bella sang and danced along with them, Wilcox said.
One of Wilcox’s favorite memories of Bella was when the group was preparing for a bake sale, and Bella spent more time eating powdered sugar than helping in the kitchen.
“By the end of the night, I was tired and she was wired and running around from all the sugar,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox was very close to the family and visited them at their home in Lancaster, Pa. as much as she could. Before Bella died, Wilcox visited them three times. Bella was very sick during the visits, and Wilcox said that this time it was different than when she had been sick in the past, said Wilcox.
By the third visit, Bella had died.
Wilcox said her death was “a really big deal,” for her. She was glad that she was able to have been there those last few times because it really helped, Wilcox said.
“There was so much love for her,” she said. “It’s good to know she’s not suffering anymore.”
For Brandi Wingate, Penn State graduate and previous THON chair for Blue in the Face, the impact of Bella’s death was more spiritual.
Wingate moved to Colorado, but was still able to keep in touch with the Riniers. When she found out that Bella died, it was very hard because she had no one in Colorado that understood, she said.
“It was devastating,” she said. “It was like losing a part of my family because we had gotten so close to them.”
Bella’s mom Shannon was “so strong in her faith” after the death of Bella, Wingate said. She couldn’t believe how someone who had just lost a child could still believe in God, she said. It was because of Shannon that Wingate decided to “find faith” at a church in Colorado, which she is currently still attending.
“Everything happens for a reason, even if I may never know the reason,” Wingate said.
Wingate was fortunate to take away a lot of great memories of Bella.
Bella wanted to do everything that the group was doing, she said. Her family came to a THON family carnival event a few years ago, she said. Bella had been really sick prior to the carnival, but by the time it rolled around, Bella was running around and no one could tell she was sick, Wingate said.
Wingate also shared a special bond with Bella’s older brother who is just two years older than Bella. Wingate is dating previous co-THON chair for Blue in the Face, Luke Skerpon, but Bella used to call Luke her boyfriend, she said. Bella’s brother J.D. developed a little crush on Wingate, so he became her “boyfriend.”
“It was really cute,” Wingate said. “Bella always walked around calling Luke her boyfriend.”
Skerpon, Penn State graduate, was co-THON chair for Blue in the Face as well as the director. He said that some of his favorite memories were when Bella would come to a rehearsal and stand right next to him and conduct.
It was around January or February, right after their first meeting with Bella that Skerpon and Bella became an “item.” She was always “glued” to his side, he said.
Bella loved playing games on Skerpon’s phone, he said. Skerpon said that Bella must have somehow figured out the password to his phone after watching him put it in because one day she took the phone and ran off with it. When they found her she was playing her favorite game, Angry Birds.
Skerpon said Bella’s death “came in stages at first,” but then when she got sick, it “happened really quickly,” he said.
He remembers the timing as being the part that hit him the hardest because when he saw her last she was fine, but it was around the time that he was getting ready to move that she passed away.
While it hit him hard, Skerpon asked himself, “Would Bella really want us to stop everything?”
“She would’ve wanted us to keep going,” he said. “If she could be energetic under the circumstances she was under, I should be able to do things no matter what.”
All three members said they would continue to support THON because Bella would’ve wanted them to do so.
“She would want us to keep fighting for others,” Skerpon said.
Wilcox said that the Rinier family would also continue to attend THON, as well as help other families after they finish paying off their bills.
Wilcox said she hopes students and others realize just how important THON is and that kids like Bella are the reason Penn State will continue to dance.