It had been only a month since Ella Bleu Wilson decided to shave it all off. Alopecia — a result of the type 1 diabetes she’d been fighting for much of her young life — was causing her to lose her thick, curly locks at an alarming rate, so Ella was ready to let it go just weeks before her 10th birthday.
So when a man approached Ella’s family last April with $40 to “buy something nice for that beautiful little girl,” Ella was already used to dealing with this kind of misunderstanding. Her baldness symbolized cancer to them. This wasn’t the first time.
So she returned the two $20 bills to the man and explained her condition and thanked him for his generosity. That’s when Ella and her mother, Ashley Wilson, learned the man’s intentions were personal. His 7-year-old son was battling cancer at and had lost his hair to chemotherapy.
The man lost his son in December.
“What he did and his story, it was very touching and very heartbreaking for us,” says Ella. “When he insisted we keep the money, I wanted to reach out for him and just help kids like his son have something fun to do while they’re in the hospital, because I know what it feels like. I’ve been in the hospital a few times in my life, and I know it can be scary.”
Ella and her mother took that $40 and bought coloring books, crayons and small games to donate to children fighting cancer at Duke Children’s Hospital. The shopping trip, however, became a drive after Ashley shared her family’s experience on Facebook, inspiring family and friends to also donate money, games and toys. The Wilsons (father Jeremy and Ella’s two younger brothers included) donated “hundreds and hundreds” of supplies to the hospital, inspiring Ella to make this an annual thing.
The Wilsons have teamed up with Sheriff Tracy Carter and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and Dancer’s Workshop in Sanford to help collect items. This year’s drive began on March 16 and will run through April 30 (more information in Carter’s Facebook post embedded at the end of this story).
“We’re asking for more specific items this year, including gift cards,” says Ashley. “We’ve already had one anonymous donor say she’d match up to $800 in gas cards and food cards for families who are making all those drives back and forth to the hospital.”
Last year’s items were sent to Duke, and this year, the recipient will be UNC Hospitals, where Ella was treated as a child for her diabetes.
“I just love helping kids,” she says. “I just wanted to do this, because I know being in a hospital can be hard.”
“Welcome to our home. May I offer you a drink?”
She is fresh off Cotillion this week, so her manners are in peak condition — even for strange writers who’ve dropped by to learn more about and share her story.
Ella Bleu Wilson (the “Bleu” comes from the name of her grandfather’s favorite dog, the subject of many stories he’d share of the years) is a lively, smiling fifth-grader at B.T. Bullock Elementary whose hobbies include singing Meghan Trainor in her room and dancing (and competing) for Dancer’s Workshop.
She turns 11 years old today, in fact, marking just over a year since she shaved her head (and nearly a year since she became a young philanthropist).
Ashley recalls a few days before the “shave party” when her daughter, having just lost a clump of hair while brushing it, came into the living room and pretended to cough up a hairball like one of their two cats (one is nice, one is quite mean).
“She’s losing her hair, and she’s making jokes about it,” mom says. “You go back and look at the photos of her party, where she invited all of her close friends, and she’s smiling through it. I even let her shave my head.”
Ashley says the family tries to be as upfront and honest as possible when people with good intentions try to help because they believe she has cancer. They refuse free meals (though sometimes, the meal is paid for and the anonymous gifter is long gone), and they’re understanding when younger children point at Ella’s head and say uncomfortable things to their parents.
“Ella is OK. We are so blessed,” Ashley adds. “This is nothing compared to what those children are fighting day in and day out. We can deal with this loss, can’t we, Ella?”
“Yes,” Ella smiles back.
Ella admits there are good things to baldness. She doesn’t sweat near as much anymore — a bonus for a dancer — and she’s ready to go in the mornings much sooner than most 11-year-old girls.
But there is teasing. And awkwardness. It’s not always easy.
Dancing has helped Ella get through the tough times since her hair loss.
“We have a huge dance family at Dancer’s Workshop. They have really supported me this year,” she says.
Her advice to other children with her condition: Keep your head high.
“If you’re going through a down time, talk about it with someone,” she says. “Listen to your favorite songs. Do what you love to do. Stay positive, and if someone tries to push you down, don’t let them. Turn the other cheek. And just have fun with it. Laugh off the jokes. Tell them, ‘If you’re trying to hurt my feeling, you’ll have to try a little harder next time.’”
Ashley hears statements like this and smiles.
“I admire how strong she is and how much stronger she was at 10 than I could ever be at that age,” she says. “She is just so resilient, and she wears it so beautifully. Not only on the outside, but on the inside, too. She makes me proud every single day.”