Crysta Baier felt a sense of well-being as she stepped into the luxury limo with her family. Her 13-year-old daughter Ally looked particularly happy and her husband and 16-year-old son also seemed relaxed. Their dinner at an elegant restaurant and this limo tour of the Kansas City holiday lights was a wonderful gift from The Elves of Christmas Present, a gift the whole family had looked forward to. With all of Ally’s medical challenges, there hadn’t been much time or energy for celebration.
It was December 23, and Crysta gazed out the window, admiring the lights. As they rode, she thought about how brave, amazing, and kind Ally was. Her daughter wanted to be a teacher, just like Crysta, and was passionate about learning and school. On her own, she had applied for the Future Teachers Academy at Olathe East High School. She was also an athlete, participating in basketball, cross country running, and Tae Kwon Do.
Making Sense of the Unbelievable
Without meaning to, Crysta flashed back to last year when Ally was in seventh-grade. Several times that fall, Ally had announced she’d had a headache at school. Then she’d feel fine. Crysta wasn’t worried until Ally came home with a migraine. They went to her pediatrician, who prescribed Ibuprofen. Days later, Ally suffered with another headache and threw up. They returned to the doctor, where Ally confessed she’d been seeing double. As a precaution, the doctor scheduled an MRI. A few hours after the test, Crysta received a call that changed her life. “Ally has a mass on her brain. Pack up your clothes and get down to Children’s Mercy Hospital. She’s going to need surgery.”
Numbed, Crysta gathered her family and gave them the news. She and Ally arrived at the hospital late that Friday night, with surgery scheduled for Sunday. Ally had to endure two grueling operations before the baseball-sized tumor was completely removed. Later the oncologist talked to the family about the severity of her disease. Ally had giant cell glioblastoma and would need intense treatment to improve her chances of survival. Eventually this would include 33 radiation sessions and 42 oral chemo doses, with maintenance medications after that.
Crysta was in a state of disbelief, as was Ally. Still, they were grateful to return home, where they were enveloped in love and support from family, friends, school, and church communities.
That support fueled their determination. “Somebody has got to be in that percentage of survival,” Crysta said to herself. “Why can’t it be Ally?”
Ally was determined to keep on living and keep trying to make the world a better place. Once when going in for radiation, she saw a young girl on a gurney being wheeled into the area. After her treatment, Ally told her mom, “During radiation, I was praying for that little girl.” Crysta knew this difficult situation was making her sweet child even more compassionate.
Turning the Terrible into Good
Crysta’s thoughts were interrupted when the limo driver stopped, looked at Ally and asked, “Is that your name up there?”
They all looked north, towards the Marriott Hotel Downtown and marveled at the large brightly-lit words blazed across the building: “The Ally Project.”
“What does it mean?” Ally wondered.
Crysta shook her head; she was clueless. The Chief Elf had just mentioned dinner and a tour of the lights. After Christmas, he planned to arrange for Ally to see her favorite college basketball team, K-State, play. Crysta had no idea what to make of this Ally Project. Then, suddenly, a police car was pulling them over.
“Is Ally Baier in here?” the officer asked.
Ally figured her brother was in trouble. She was surprised when the policeman handed her a small medal and commanded: “Follow us.”
And follow they did, zipping through downtown Kansas City, astonished that the streets were blocked off so nothing would impede their progress, running red lights, feeling like celebrities. As they passed through each intersection, more police joined the caravan. When they arrived at the Marriott, they were agog at the television crews, paparazzi, and number of people who stood waiting for them.
“What’s going on?” Ally asked.
“I don’t know. Just smile and we’ll be fine,” Crysta said.
They followed the policeman down a long corridor and stopped beside a large poster advertising The Ally Project. According to the poster, the project would match future teachers like Ally with patients at Children’s Mercy, who need tutoring and assistance with schoolwork.
Still confused, Ally was touched to see her middle school principal, who explained that Ally’s love of teaching, children, and her compassion for helping others had inspired this project. Chief Elf had been the catalyst, drawing together a coalition, including The Kauffman Foundation, Children’s Mercy Hospital, The Elves, The Future Educators Academy, and the Olathe School District. These organizations were creating a program so hospitalized children with chronic illnesses could keep up with their schoolwork. Ally and her family listened in amazement.
“We want you involved in this,” the official from the Children’s Mercy told Ally. Ally couldn’t believe her luck—this was her dream—helping others and particularly other children who were sick. Plus, she learned she’d been accepted into the Future Educators Academy. Crysta fought back tears as newspaper and television reporters interviewed them.
“Everyone is so generous,” Crysta says. “They’re helping turn a terrible time in her life into something good.”
The Good Work Continues
Since that memorable evening, the good has continued. With the support of a great medical team and her family, Ally missed little school during her intense treatments. Recently, she had a clean brain scan and was able to go off her medicine. She and her mom both serve on the Board of The Ally Project and are actively involved in bringing the program to life. Ally felt privileged to attend training at Children’s Mercy with other Future Educators.
Ally is dedicated to being there for other children who are enduring serious illnesses. For her, helping kids who are stuck in hospitals keep up with their schoolwork means everything. Ally says, “If you are a sick kid, you can always talk to me.”
“I have survived this year in part because of Ally’s strength and courage and also because of the many bright spots I’ve experienced,” Crysta says. “We are so grateful to the Elves and all the people who contributed to this project.”