Emily Zirkle (center), sisters Abby (left) and Sara (right) was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at the age of 14, just before entering her freshmen year of high school at Panorama. Today Zirkle, 31, is an Instructional Coach and Behavior Strategist for Des Moines Public Schools and volunteers for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, who granted her a trip to Disney World in 2001. Zirkle recently help grant a trip to Italy for Panorama eighth grader Emma Reinhart. Emma Reinhart, a Panorama eighth grader diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on November 10, 2016, learned this week she has been granted a trip to Italy through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Panorama pair connects through cancer, Make-a-Wish

Emily Zirkle helps grant trip to Italy for Emma Reinhart

Two young girls diagnosed with cancer while in middle school at Panorama have connected through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation’s mission is to “grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy,” according to its website.

Emily Zirkle was 14 years old, and just finishing eighth grade at Panorama, when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The daughter of Roger and Laurie Zirkle and the youngest of the couple’s four children, she was put on an experimental study and responded to it rapidly.

“I responded really well to the chemotherapy, so I went through treatment for six months,” Zirkle said as the memories surfaced.

Now a cancer survivor at the age of 31, Emily is an instructional coach and behavior strategist for Des Moines Public Schools. She remembers her fight against cancer 17 years ago, although only bits and pieces of it.

“I’ve blocked most of it out because it is so traumatic,” she said. “There are still some things I remember, but the large traumatic parts, I have really blocked out.”

Emily says fighting cancer at such a young age forced her to grow up rather quickly.  

“When you have a life-threatening illness, you realize you have to just deal with it; it changes you,” she said. “People pay so much attention to you, and then you feel guilty.”

During her fight against cancer, Emily was granted her wish to go to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her mom submitted her wish, and Emily, along with her parents, older sisters Abby and Sara and brother Jonah enjoyed a trip of a lifetime.

“We were scheduled to go over Christmas break that year, but I got super sick and ended up being in the hospital,” Emily said.

The trip was rescheduled for her 15th birthday in February of 2001. They fed the dolphins at Sea World and visited the Epcot Theme Park.

“I didn’t feel like I deserved it, but you do,” Emily said of the Make-A-Wish trip. “It was so awesome for the six of us, for us to be together as a family.”

Emily said her family has always been close, but fighting cancer together tightened the bond even more.

“Ever since that happened, we’ve been more extremely close,” Emily said. “We’re all here for each other.”

Wanting to be there for others like those who were there for her years ago, Emily decided to volunteer a year and a half ago for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She meets with families and talks to children about their dreams, their wishes.

She asks what their favorite color is, where they’d like to visit, what their wish might be.

“I fill out all the paperwork — and it’s a lot of paperwork,” Emily said.

She submits the requests to a coordinator who presents to a board, prepares a timeline and checks airfares. Then Emily gets to help plan a reveal party for the family.

“We have a little boy going to Disney World, so we have Disney balloons and T-shirts,” Emily said. “That part is always fun.”

When Emily, a 2004 graduate of Panorama, saw a wish request submitted for Emma Reinhart, she knew it was one she had to help grant.

Reinhart, an eighth grader at Panorama, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia on November 10, 2016. Reinhart, who recently spent five days hospitalized with viral sepsis, learned this week she’s been granted a trip to Italy in September.

“She loves Italian food, and she wants to travel around Italy and see the sights, eat out and go shopping,” Emily said of Emma’s wish. “I’m excited for them.”

Emily didn’t know Emma or her parents, Steph and Troy Reinhart, before her cancer diagnosis. Emily worked at the grocery store in Panora growing up, so she said she knew the Reinhart family, owners of Hometown Foods in town, and she has a mutual friend with Steph Reinhart. She said it was nice to return home and do something for someone in her home community.

“It’s awesome to help kids and their families, knowing you went through the exact same thing,” Emily said. “I think they like that I know what they are going through.”

Emily said that a lot of times during her fight against cancer, she felt like the rock for her family.

“I always knew I was going to be OK,” she said. “But you have to be strong for everyone else while you’re the one going through everything.”

Emily said helping grant Emma’s wish has made her heart feel full.

“You know what you went through, and you know what the community did for you, so I’m glad I can be involved and give back,” she said. “It makes me feel good.”

Emma said she’s grateful her wish has been granted.

“To be able to do something I have dreamed about gives me a feeling of normalcy,” she said. “One of my biggest wishes was to go to Italy because I love Italian food and I love sightseeing.”

Another part of her wish includes a gondola ride in one of the big cities there.

“I’m so grateful to have Emily as my coordinator because she went through similar things I’m going through now,” Emma said.

Steph Reinhart said having Emily as a part of Emma’s wish has been an emotional experience, one that highlights the lifelong journey of cancer.

“I hope that Emma has a desire to reach out, get involved and make a difference in the lives of other kids facing cancer even after she is cured,” Steph said. “I always think it’s neat watching Emma interact with people who have once been in her shoes — there is life after cancer, there is love and happiness and success after cancer, and people like Emily show her that.”

Steph said both she and Troy feel some guilt with their family being granted a wish. 

“Our community has supported us from the very start, with meals and gifts, the prayer vigil held for Emma and becoming part of Tori’s Angels,” she said. “It’s overwhelming, and we know we can never repay what has been given to our family.”

But the parents say they know Emma deserves this trip.

“There was a point in time we didn’t know if she would live to ever go on another family vacation,” Steph said. “She has no memory of last Thanksgiving or last Christmas. It’s complete amnesia. And you reflect on that time, and you think about how far she has come, and you realize she deserves this. She deserves to have these memories and this experience with her siblings.”

Since 1980, the non-profit Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted wishes to children diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions.

Emily was featured in May during the Des Moines Make-A-Wish Gala, one of the Foundation’s biggest fundraisers each year. Her entire family attended with her. It brought her cancer journey full circle.

“It takes $12,000 to grant one wish, and they asked if anyone there wanted to donate that, and one guy stands up and does that,” she said. “To know that these people are here, just to know that people care, it’s pretty awesome.”

Emily says she’s glad to be just a small part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“There’s a lot of good people,” she said.

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