“We all know we should not be in a world with childhood cancer, but we are. So, what are we going to do about it?” said Lauren Harrison, a teacher at Brookwood High School and a beneficiary of the Amanda Riley Foundation, a 501(c)3 that supports families battling cancer.
As a teenager, Lauren knew a girl named Amanda Riley, — a triathlete who played basketball and ran track and cross country for Brookwood. Amanda was the picture of health until the year 2009 when she began complaining of back pain. As the diagnosis later showed, she was experiencing symptoms of a stage IV cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma. Amanda had a tumor in her bladder, and it had metastasized to the lungs and bones. Steve and Barbara Riley’s youngest child passed away after battling cancer for 13 months. She was 17 years old.
Out of this tragedy, the Amanda Riley Foundation was born. For grieving parents Steve and Barbara, the Foundation has provided a way to share Amanda’s zest for life long after she left them. “Our focus is on smiles, Amanda was known for her smiles, and we want to keep that alive through our services,” Barbara said of the organization founded in September 2010.
Although they have touched hundreds of lives, Barbara admits this year has been difficult because since January 1, 2019, 12 “Riley Warriors” have passed away. Barbara had become close with many of these Warriors, after knowing them for more than five years, and she spent many hours with them during their final days. "Amanda was my youngest child, and so I made a promise — ‘I will never, ever leave you. You will never be alone.’ Well, some of these kids were alone all the time, so I really got to go and see them and be with them in their room, and they just liked having a friendly face that they could confide in," Barbara said. “They’re just a reminder to appreciate life and to make the most out of it.”
Now in her late 20s with a family of her own, Lauren Harrison has often thought of Amanda —someone she recalls as “funny, hard-working, and humble.”
“Now, Amanda has a legacy, but to me, she’ll always be sleepovers and team trips,” she reminisced. In those days, Lauren was still grappling with the concept of mortality but has since taken on a new appreciation for what the Riley’s went through when her toddler, Hattie Harrison, was diagnosed with Leukemia.“Barbara Riley was one of the first people to reach out to me, and it was one of the hardest full circle moments to be in,” Lauren admitted. “We are so thankful for all you’ve done for us from bringing us meals to visits in the hospital and also really truly knowing what we were walking through.” While she wasn’t sure if her daughter would live to celebrate her second birthday, today, Hattie is a healthy preschooler. For that, Lauren cannot thank the Riley’s enough.
“When I think of heroism, I think of Steve and Barbara Riley,” said Lauren, who is committed to staying connected with the cancer community. “I always knew it was brave to walk back into those hospital walls, but I never really understood what that meant until last summer. It’s so tempting to just turn away, but this journey can be very isolating. It feels like you’re in a different universe, but through Barbara, I see the benefit of staying involved, and I would pass the same onto you. If you can get involved, walk inside those hospital walls sometimes. Those people are real and often, they’re very lonely.”
Those who do not experience childhood cancer first-hand are often distanced from its pain. Confronting the fact that it claims the lives of children and infants every day can be heart-breaking, infuriating — even absurd. But those at the Amanda Riley Foundation chose to face it daily. They do it for Amanda, a girl who loved basketball, dogs and the color yellow — a girl whose smile was so bright, it kept shining years after she was gone.
Come December, the Foundation will host the annual Day of Smiles where guests are treated to a Holiday breakfast with Santa, and kids can create crafts and share smiles. Those interested in volunteering or sponsoring these and other activities can learn more at https://www.amandarileyfoundation.org.