ST PAUL, Minn. — It was Christmas in March at the Children's Hospital campuses in St. Paul and Minneapolis Tuesday, as a truck rolled in bearing toys and gifts for young patients in memory of a special young girl whose mission was to spread joy wherever she went.
Vanessa Miller passed away last week at the age of 12, after struggling with medical problems that stemmed from her being born with hydrocephalus, a condition where excess fluid builds up in the brain. She was a regular patient at Children's through the years, with surgeries and care that left her family grateful and anxious to give back.
But Vanessa's true love... was Target. She and her mother Debra Miller visited the Blaine store at least twice a week (four times in a "good" week) where the little girl was greeted by name, and was known to slurp an Oat Milk from a Starbucks cup.
It was that love that led to a major shopping spree last Saturday, where hundreds turned out to buy gifts for children undergoing treatment at Children's Hospital. The event was healing for the Millers, their extended family and greater community, as it promised to spread the joy and enthusiasm that Vanessa was known for.
On Tuesday, family members and volunteers accompanied a box truck loaded with 58 large boxes filled with gifts and two pallets stacked with colorful blankets and stuffed animals to Children's St. Paul. Half the loot would be dropped there, with the other half later transported to the Minneapolis campus.
"Just to make their stay a little bit more comfortable, provide a distraction, just to give back because Vanessa spent a lot of time in the hospital, and we've received so much from Children's and everyone who's been so generous to donate," said Vanessa's mom Debra. "It means a lot, because.... Vanessa was always just a joy, she was so giving and so caring, and she loved people, she loved other children, she spread joy."
"Everybody who talks about her talks about that joy," added Vanessa's aunt Mary Strohmayer. "So we want to continue that, Vanessa is spreading joy even after she's not here anymore... she IS joy."
In fact, while unpacking and sorting the gifts from the ginormous shopping spree last Saturday, the Millers discussed making it an annual event to keep the young patients at Children's front and center. There will also be an effort to build a new playground at Kids Abilities in Hugo, where Vanessa received therapy.
"She's just mad she's missing the party," said Strohmayer as she and Debra Miller laughed. "Had some serious FOMO, didn't want to miss anything.
While Vanessa's impact on the world will live on much longer than the 12 years she spent on earth, that fact does not erase the sadness and hurt that lingers with those who love her. The life of a child with special needs thrives on routine, and Vanessa's mother is dealing with an aching heart... and a hole in her life.
"I miss her dearly," said Debra Miller. "My day revolved around her schedule, whether she wanted to go to the park, go to Target, get fries at Wendy's... we did everything together. It was from waking up in the morning, bursting through my door and saying "Good Morning!" to what she wanted for dinner, saying goodnight."