September 22, 2021
#WomenWhoWoosh: Bonnie Collins
At Woosh, there are many women in our orbit who inspire us. But none perhaps quite as much as Bonnie Collins. Bonnie is a mom, a graphic designer, an event director, a social media manager, and the founder of The Live Like Maya Foundation, a non-profit she started to honor her daughter, Maya, who lost her battle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at just 14 years old. September is Children's Cancer Awareness month and, since Bonnie is an inspiration to so many, and we are so proud to have her as a friend and fellow woman who Wooshes, we wanted to share her story. Read on to learn about Bonnie and Maya's journey and what makes Bonnie an unstoppable force in the face of adversity.
Can you tell us a little about Maya and how she was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML)?
Maya was the cutest, funniest, sassiest kid with the best personality and biggest, brightest smile! We called her "Maya the Magnificent" (and still do!) She loved dancing, horseback riding, acting in the local children's performance theatre and laughing at large flocks of birds. She was the type of kid who cracked everyone up with her witty personality and made everyone's day a whole lot brighter. 🌞
When Maya was in 3rd grade, she started complaining that she was tired and felt crummy. She looked pale and had become lethargic. We took her to the pediatrician numerous times over the course of 9 months and were always sent home with the advice that she was in too many activities and we should cut back (which we did although we didn't feel like her schedule was overly rigorous). It wasn't until I was randomly in a public restroom with Maya one day fighting a nosebleed (which had become rather common for her), when a nurse overheard and suggested we take her back to the pediatrician for blood work, which we did. The blood work revealed that something was very wrong and we were sent to Cincinnati Children's Hospital for more blood work to determine what was going on. It was there that they diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia as well as a rare bone marrow disease called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS)
, which they suspected predated the cancer. She was 7 years old.
We can only imagine how hard that must have been to hear. What was life like for you all after this diagnosis?
Scary. But we were ready to take cancer head on. We were told that her only chance for survival would be a bone marrow transplant and we were blessed with an anonymous (at the time) donor named Kayleigh who gave her the life-saving cells that she needed. This first transplant was rough on Maya but eventually she started feeling better and achieved remission for a few months. Then, in February 2012, she relapsed and another transplant was needed. This time, she received cells from a young man named Mike (who was so touched by his experience he now works for St. Jude Children's hospital). She sailed through her second transplant (for the most part), and returned to a relatively normal life of remission for 4 glorious years.
In June 2016, we learned that the cancer had returned with a vengeance and we, along with her doctors, worked to get her into a chemotherapy trial. It thankfully worked, but she still needed to undergo a third bone marrow transplant (a trial protocol) at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis using her dad's cells. She and I relocated to Memphis from Cincinnati to begin the treatment. A few months after this transplant, she developed an infection and her immune system was just too depleted to keep fighting. She gained her angel wings on October 3, 2017. Ironically she was cancer free when she passed away but the harsh treatments she had endured over the course of her short life took a toll.
These years were filled with so many unknowns and a lot of tears, but Maya always stayed positive and hopeful, wearing her brilliant, beautiful smile that just lit up a room.
What kept you going during the time when Maya was battling cancer?When we moved to Memphis, we stayed at the Target House, which consists of residential furnished apartments for patient families being treated at St. Jude. I, along with my whole family, fell in love with this amazing hospital. It was our home away from home and we felt so cared for there - the atmosphere literally kept me going at times. I became lifelong friends with the other families there, and the doctors and nurses became our second family. We will always be incredibly grateful to St. Jude. They told us from the beginning that they were "going for the cure" and that's all we needed to hear. They gave us hope to keep moving forward and when you are in a situation like that, hope is precious.
I didn't know much about St. Jude prior to Maya's diagnosis but everything at St. Jude is completely paid for by donors. Treatments, medications, food, groceries, and housing were completely paid for by the hospital. Families at St. Jude NEVER receive a bill from the hospital for anything! St. Jude believes that the only thing a family should ever worry about is helping their child LIVE. It sounds like a simple thing, but so many families and so many children don't get this opportunity. It's one of the main reasons I started the Live Like Maya Foundation.
Can you tell us about that decision to start a foundation?
At first, I really wasn't sure if I could do it. My background is in graphic design and I didn't know much about fundraising at all. I knew it would be a lot of work, I worried about donor fatigue, and I thought maybe a better idea would be to devote my time to other worthy organizations. But I wanted to do something for Maya, to tell her story, keep her memory alive, and to create something beautiful out of such a horrible situation. Maya loved to do random acts of kindness. Sometimes that was the only thing that would get her out of bed on a morning that she felt horrible. Knowing that she would be able to buy a homeless person a meal on the way to her clinic appointment, or hide toys around the hospital that we purchased at the gift store for the St. Jude kids to find brought her so much joy and happiness.
What is the mission behind the Live Like Maya Foundation? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?The foundation is committed to funding pediatric cancer research, providing financial assistance to families of children battling cancer and continuing Maya's legacy of fostering kindness and goodwill within the community. We primarily raise funds for St. Jude, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Cincinnati Children's Hospital and also directly for local families. Eventually, I would love to create a housing facility similar to the Target House at St. Jude for families here in Ohio visiting Cincinnati Children's Hospital from out of town.
What's something that you would like to share with other people who are going through something similar to what you did with Maya's illness?
Like they say on airplanes, put your oxygen mask on first before your children. In order to be strong for your child, family member, or whoever is counting on you, you have to have something to give. I know it's hard, but allowing yourself 10 minutes to shower, grab a coffee, or even do your makeup, really makes a difference. It was during one of our hospital stays that my friend Tracy sent me a package of Woosh products and I carried the double-ended brushes with me in my bag everywhere. They were so easy to use and helped me put myself together quickly. Something small like that really goes a long way in these circumstances. It made me feel as close to normal as possible during the worst, most chaotic time of my life.
While running a foundation is more than a full time job, you and your husband, Tom, also have a Brewery?!
Yes. My husband, Tom, always had dreamed of opening a brewery but Maya was always sick and we were always in the hospital.When she passed away, Tom decided that life was too short and he was just going to go for it. Along with his brother and three other partners, they began a labor of love that resulted in Third Eye Brewing Company. All along, we planned to use the brewery as a vessel for fundraising for The Live Like Maya Foundation, hence our tagline, "Live Life, Do Good, Drink Beer". And Maya's spirit is embedded throughout the brewery. In fact, the beer that benefits the foundation "Higher Purpose" milk stout recently won two gold medals, first in the US Open Beer Championship and the second in the Great American Beer Festival (a world renowned competition) during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Maya's birthday weekend!!! Maya's Higher Purpose milk stout is the best milk stout in the world!
In honor of Maya and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Woosh Beauty will be donating 10% of sales to the Live Like Maya Foundation for the rest of September.
Please click on these links to learn more about The Live Like Maya Foundation, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Third Eye Brewing Company.