BLAINE, Minn. — "She was a tiny person who made a huge impact on the world."
Those words from her Aunt Mary sum up the life of Vanessa Grace Miller, a 12-year-old girl from Blaine who passed away suddenly on Monday. The death of a child always rips a hole in the hearts of their family, friends and community, but in another way, every day of Vanessa's short life was a gift, a reason to celebrate.
Vanessa was born with hydrocephalus, a condition where excess fluid builds up in the brain. She spent three months in the hospital after being born, and the remainder of her life was riddled with health challenges that led to regular surgeries and stays at Children's Hospital.
"There were so many times we thought, 'She's not going to make it out of this,'" recalled her aunt Mary Strohmayer, sharing that Vanessa had a dozen surgeries in 12 years just to change the shunts that kept her alive.
But she did make it out of life-threatening situations, time and time again. Her large extended family sounds a common theme of how Vanessa tackled every day with strength, laughter and joy, and shared those gifts with those around her.
"Vanessa Grace was the soul of every room she occupied. Her smile was infectious," said her uncle Mike Miller. "She was always happy. You couldn't help but want to be around her. Everybody who ever met her loved her."
Saturday morning, hundreds of community members showed up to shop at Vanessa's favorite Target store in Blaine. The short little shop-a-holic simply loved Target. On Saturday, shoppers who were part of the effort were given lists of items to buy for Minnesota Children's, where Vanessa received care.
"[Target] was just her favorite place. It was her favorite place," mother Debora Miller said. "I think we probably came to Target a minimum of two times a week – if not four, five, sometimes six times a week."
Everyone, from family friends, to Vanessa's chiropractor, Christian Kollar, showed up.
"She was amazing – she made everyone feel special," Kollar said. "Every time she saw me she would light up; it made me feel good."
Even complete strangers came to shop for donations as well. Tandra Norman brought her baby boy, Emmet.
"Emmet is a Children's child as well," Norman said. "I just saw the story on Facebook."
Target is also donating $2,500 to Children's Minnesota in Vanessa's name.
An obituary written by Vanessa's aunt reads as follows:
"Vanessa was a Target-loving, Kids Bop-dancing, Facetime-calling, fuzzy croc-wearing, Taylor Swift-singing, hoop-shooting, Wendy's fry-begging, hand-clapping, butt-spinning, effervescent warrior. Vanessa wasn't the life of the party, Vanessa was the party!"
One of the things Vanessa loved... LOVED... was going to Target with her mom Debra. Her mom would grab a Starbucks, Vanessa would get an oat milk in a Starbucks cup (which made her feel like a big deal, says her aunt Mary) and maybe if she was lucky, a cookie or two.
But that wasn't the only thing Vanessa fed off at Target. Aunt Mary says staff members would greet her niece with enthusiasm, and made her feel important.
"They knew her by name ... employees were like 'Hi Vanessa!' She just loved it."
Vanessa's death was unexpected, despite her ongoing physical challenges. Her Aunt Kristi shares that during the initial landslide of grief, Vanessa's mom Debra wondered "How am I ever going to go to Target again?," trying to imagine even one day without her.
"You’re not going to walk in there alone. We are going to come with you. Hundreds of us,” said her husband Patrick Miller, referring to the entire community that had loved and supported their daughter through her short life.
That exchange led to an idea, one that led to Saturday's celebration of Vanessa.
"We have spent a significant time at the hospital, and to be able to provide a small distraction to families going through something so terrible and so hard helps the children. It breaks up the day when someone pops in and drops something off for you,” Debra Miller reflected. “We know what it’s like and it hurts, and it’s scary. Vanessa spread so much joy and I know if she could have made it easier for someone else, she totally would.”