Malia Suber isn’t easy to miss.
I am standing outside the box office and watching intently. As the line begins to grow, I realize I am actually a little giddy, as I wait for the young girl I have never met before but whose story has already touched my heart. I am genuinely excited to meet her. While the pitch of the circus tent looms behind me across the early evening sky like a festive caricature of the Taj Mahal, I wonder again how I am going to recognize this remarkable 3rd grader and Attendance Awareness Poster Contest winner from Gullett Elementary School.
As a second-time winner for her grade, 2nd grade and now 3rd, I quickly realize that recognizing Malia Suber in a crowd need never have been a concern.
Malia instinctively returns my wave as our eyes lock from across the parking lot. We both appear surprised by the immediate recognition from so far away, and I erupt in laughter at the filter-less joy and innocence of children. Perhaps it is my bright purple Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading (SCGLR) polo that tipped her off. Whatever the case, Malia’s beautiful face remains covered by the mask she is indefinitely required to wear in public to protect her immune system while her huge eyes are glowing with excitement.
“You must be Malia!” I exclaim. She looks up at her mom, whose arms are completely involved with Malia’s 9-month old baby sister and again with a smile I cannot actually see, moves in a bit closer to her mom to reassess me. I welcome them all, and as her mom responds warmly, I address Malia directly: “Hi Malia, my name is LeeAnne, we are so happy you are feeling stronger! It’s so awesome that you brought your whole family to the circus with you! Are you excited?”
Eyes sparkling as they look out over her mask, Malia stretches up to confer in whispers with her mom. Smiling at me, Malia’s mom says, “Yes, you can now, but you must try to wear it when we get inside.” Malia proudly turns to face me, her 6-year old sister at her side and pulls down the mask to reveal a giant smile. With a mouth full of teeth wrapped in colorful braces, she announces that “Yes! I am very excited! I have never been to the circus before. I hope there are animals! Are there animals?”
“Oh yes, there are animals, and a lot of horses,” I say. “Do you like horses?”
Both girls squeal “I LOVE horses!” and we are ‘off to the races’ as the questions come fast and furious. I assure them that there are tightrope acts, trapeze acts, and clowns, and yes, there is acrobatics too!
Kneeling to show the girls all of the fun goodies in the gift bag I have brought them, I gently look at Malia and ask her about her ordeal. “So, Malia, I understand you have had a bit of a tough time the last few months, but you look like you may be feeling a lot better now. Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, I am feeling better,” she says as if she is accustomed to fielding the question. (Malia was finally diagnosed with Kawasakis Disease, a non-contagious, yet debilitating virus that can weaken the heart if not properly treated). Still “moon-faced” (as her mom refers to her swollen face that is a result of the medication she is still on), she continues, “I was really scared. For a while, I was afraid the doctors were not going to find out was wrong with me. I told my mom everyone is really nice, especially the nurses, but I don’t want to be in the hospital. I’m glad I’m not there anymore.”
Silke, Malia’s mother, notes quietly how the experience has changed something in Malia. “She is a different person now. She didn’t like seeing all of those children in the hospital. It really affected her. She wants to help them. She has already decided to have all of her birthday presents donated to the children there and keeps talking about finding ways we can help the other kids. I didn’t expect her to be so aware of the other children because she was so sick herself!”
This night is indeed a very special night for Malia and also for all of us at the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. You see, a few weeks ago, SCGLR hosted a spectacular 2-night event of breathtaking fun, beautiful horses, incredible acts, and joyful clowning around at Circus Sarasota. The memory-making event was awarded to all of the children in Sarasota and Manatee counties who participated in the SCGLR sponsored Attendance Awareness Poster Contest. The evening also included the families of all of the students and was generously underwritten by The Patterson Foundation.
While the other children were celebrating and being acknowledged ringside together, Malia was several weeks into being hospitalized while her young family was reeling. Her steady recovery “has felt like a miracle to us” and “is still a process” says her Mom. “Malia was a trooper! She told me, ‘Mommy, don’t worry, I will make myself get better.’ She was so sick, but she was so determined too.”
Being able to provide this evening for Malia and her family and reward her for her insight, creativity, and willingness to be a leader among her peers is an honor for us. With popcorn purchased, drinks distributed and everyone in their seats, the surprise of the night came as Circus Sarasota Co-Founders Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs welcomed the audience. Pedro offered his support to all of the performers and their amazing talents. Then he made an unexpected announcement from the ring: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a very special young lady with us tonight from Gullet Elementary School. Her name is Miss Malia Suber! Malia is in the 3rd grade, and she is the winner of the Attendance Awareness Poster Contest. Let’s all give Malia a hand!”
Wow. What a moment! No photos were allowed. However, I will never forget the look on Malia’s face. It was, quite simply, pure and priceless.
At the break, it was time for me to go, so I began to say my goodbyes to Malia and her family when out of the blue, Malia asked me, “So who won for the county?” I wasn’t sure I understood her correctly and asked her to repeat the question. “WHO won for the county?” she asked again.
I couldn’t help but smile as I suddenly understood just what was on her mind. I don’t remember their names at the moment, Malia, but I can find out and let you know.
“Hmmmm,” I asked, “Are you planning for next year?”
“Yes,” she nodded with authority, “I Am.”