Sophie’s Smile: Spirited Teen Helps Sick Kids Realize Dreams

The Jewish News
Robert Sklar

Robert Sklar

Just 13 and battling an inherited genetic disorder, Sophie Blumberg flashed her signature smile while dashing to the stage to accept top junior fundraiser honors on Make-A-Wish Michigan’s summer bicycle tour.

The benefit tour, dubbed Wish-A-Mile (WAM), is the Brighton-based organization’s major fundraiser.

Sophie and her father, Loren, enjoy time together at WAM’s Heroes Hurrah.
Sophie is all smiles after riding in the WAM Jr. on her specially fitted Trek bike.

“It was a thrill to go up on stage, receive the star-shaped trophy and get so many high fives from the WAM volunteers,” Sophie, daughter of Mindy and Loren Blumberg of Farmington Hills, told the JN. “All I could think about was achieving my goal and the other kids who would benefit from the money I was able to raise.”

Make-A-Wish is a national charitable agency that grants wishes to qualifying children (affectionately Wish Heroes) with life-threatening medical conditions. A wish not only is something to anticipate with excitement, but also represents a special opportunity for families with a pediatric challenge.

Sophie became a bat mitzvah in February at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. For six years, she has been among the Wish Heroes for Oakland County-based Team Alex, the WAM tour’s largest organized entrant and leading fundraiser.

“Being a Wish Hero has allowed me to support and thank the hundreds of riders who have raised money to help kids just like me,” the precocious teenager said. “However, I wanted to help kids and their families in need. I wanted to do more.”

And she did.

Registered in the WAM Jr. held July 30, Sophie raised $4,347 toward Team Alex’s 2017 fundraising total of more than $400,000. Statewide, WAM drew 1,000 registrants and generated $2.4 million. Since 1984, Make-A-Wish Michigan has granted 8,500 wishes.

Team Alex  (teamalexrides.org) is named for Alexandra “Alex” Graham, the courageous daughter of Susie and Bill Graham of West Bloomfield. Alex died in January 1999 from Osteogenic Sarcoma, a childhood bone cancer, following a 13-month fight that included chemotherapy, a leg amputation and lung surgery.

WAM 2017 featured a 300-mile, three-day course July 28-30 beginning in Traverse City on Lake Michigan and a 50-mile, one-day route on July 30 through the Irish Hills, west of Chelsea. Both treks passed the silent mile just before the finish line at Michigan International Speedway, near Brooklyn.

Silent mile placards in the grass remembered fallen Wish Heroes and WAM ambassadors, including Alex Graham and another Team Alex legend, Jeffrey Surnow, killed in a bicycle accident in Hawaii in 2015.

Taking part in her third WAM Jr., Sophie chose to ride eight laps on a volunteer-staffed, half-mile oval near the WAM finish.

Wishful Legacy

Over its 19 years of existence remembering the uplifting legacy of Alex Graham, Team Alex, captained so earnestly by Beth Brandvain of Farmington Hills, has raised enough money to help grant more than 400 wishes.

Make-A-Wish fulfilled Sophie’s dream in April 2016. She and her parents, along with loving older sister Alena, then 15, met the cast of the Disney Channel TV show, Girl Meets World.

Sophie’s long red hair, big brown eyes, upbeat demeanor and ready smile belie her battle against Familial Dysautonomia, which affects the development and function of nerves throughout the body.

In the past two years, Sophie has logged fewer hospital visits, denoting a slight improvement health-wise. Still, physical therapy at home includes keeping her lungs clear, her eyes moist and her breathing steady. Awareness must be keen to minimize the risk of injury given her reduced sensitivity to pain.

An incoming eighth-grader at Warner Middle School in Farmington Hills, Sophie is thankful to Make-A-Wish for bringing “so much happiness to me and my family.”

Therein lies the essence of Make-A-Wish: to supplement a Wish family’s medical experience with emotional support that typically elevates spirits unimaginably within the context of reality.

Underscoring the role Make-A-Wish can play, Mindy Blumberg recalls that “when we found out Sophie’s wish to meet the cast of Girl Meets World was granted, this can-do kind of kid hit a whole new level. And it spread throughout the family quickly.”

Ever Exuberant

Sophie learned to cycle in summer 2014, thanks to Friendship Circle’s hosting an iCan Bike class at West Bloomfield High School. The weeklong class utilized special bikes to help kids with disabilities learn balance and technique.

“Sophie was extremely determined and went from training wheels to riding a two-wheeler in just three days, something she was very proud of,” Mindy said.

At the Heroes Hurrah outside Michigan International Speedway, Sophie joined other Wish Heroes in serving up medals and hugs for each of their team riders taking part in WAM. Sophie posed patiently for each photo her adult teammates sought, relishing the love of her “extended family.” Team Alex’s 130 riders each received wristbands with the names of Alex and Team Alex’s three current Wish Heroes as well as a multicolored string bracelet created by Sophie and her mom.

Sophie’s father rode in his fifth WAM 300. He was awestruck watching Sophie beam on stage at WAMmy Awards Night at DeWitt High School, outside Lansing, the second night of the 300-mile trek.

“Sophie has been through so much in such a short period of time,” Loren recounted a week later. “As the parent of a Wish Hero, I live it every day. As a rider, I can almost touch the impact my fundraising efforts will have on other kids.”

Smile Power

Alex Graham’s legacy proved monumental for the Blumbergs. Alex’s wish before she died at age 17 in her senior year at West Bloomfield High School was a public service announcement. In the unique wish, Alex and nine other kids with cancer ask other kids to smile at them, not stare, because, as Alex puts it, “we’ve had enough hurt in our lives already.”

Clearly, Sophie shares Alex’s wish. For example, she’s learning to be a Temple Israel madrichim (or guide) qualified to help students, teachers and the larger temple community once she enters high school.

As Loren tells it, “Despite the difficulties she faces daily, Sophie remains positive, rising up to meet every challenge — and she does so with a smile.

“I was so proud of her in that moment on stage. I was reminded of just how much she inspires me every day.”

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