By Patch Staff
The sound of youthful voices rose from the table as heads bent over hands filled with orange and white ribbons, deep in concentration.
“Can someone cut me some more of the skinny ribbon?” one asked, while two others watched a video on an iPhone that demonstrated how to make a bow.
“Back that up for a second, I want to watch that again,” one of the girls said. Two seats down, a girl ran a line of hot glue down a crease she’d made in a length of white ribbon with orange polka dots. At the end of the table, a girl took a Sharpie and in simple black lettering wrote “Bows for Bella” on the white plastic display card holding a bow.
It was a Saturday afternoon -- the kind of January day where most teens might be at the mall or hanging out with friends. But this gaggle of girls -- members of the Twin County Rebels -- were on a mission: to make as many Bows for Bella as they could in a few hours.
It’s just the latest effort by this group of 14- to 16-year-old girls to help a young girl and her family as they go through the kind of battle any parent fears.
Bella is Isabella Ward, a 3-year-old from Middletown, who has been battling leukemia since early December. The Rebels -- who are based in Brick but have team members hailing from several towns, including Neptune, Lacey, Point Pleasant, Freehold, Lakewood, Lake Como and Berkeley as well as Brick -- became aware of her plight early on and quickly took her and her family in as one of their own.
“None of us really has a little sister,” said Alexis Smith, 15, of Neptune. “Seeing what she was going through -- it just wasn’t fair.”
Isabella was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia less than three weeks before Christmas, when her parents, Harry and Lisa Ward, took her to the hospital because she had a fever that wouldn’t come down.
“Bella, Brianna and I had just finished decorating the house for Christmas,” Lisa Ward said, and Lisa realized Bella was asleep in her room not long after.
“She never does that without me, so I went over to kiss her and she was burning up,” Lisa said. “Her temp was 103.6. I was going to go out to get Tylenol, but Harry said enough was enough with high fevers, so we went to Riverview Medical Center.”
Bella had had pneumonia the week before Thanksgiving, Lisa said, but the fevers that had accompanied it returned.
At Riverview, Bella’s temperature continued to rise. A chest X-ray came back clear, Lisa said, but bloodwork “came back abnormal on every level,” she said. Bella was sent to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital by ambulance, and while her parents didn’t have a clear picture of what was happening, “we knew it had to bad since we were going to the hemoc floor.
“We didn't finally know of her diagnosis until Monday night, Dec. 9,” she said.
Both Harry, who works as a security guard at the Oyster Pointe Hotel in Red Bank, and Lisa, who had just started a job at the Santander Bank branch in Red Bank in October, notified their bosses and co-workers of Bella’s illness.
One of those they notified was Stephen Smith, the night auditor at the Oyster Point Hotel.
“When you work that shift you become close friends with your co-workers,” Smith said.
Bella’s illness struck a chord with Smith, who has two children. He posted a note on Facebook asking friends to keep the little girl in their thoughts and prayers.
But he took it a step further: Smith, the head coach of the Twin County Rebels, reached out to his team, asking for the families' assistance to help the Wards deal with the stress of the situation by purchasing tablets for Bella and her 7-year-old sister, Brianna, to help the girls pass the time while Isabella was at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, where the Wards would be spending their holidays.
"The Wards were going to buy them but now will have to hold off with Harry having to take a leave of absence from work," Smith told the team.
“I knew Harry had a hard life,” Smith said, “and I wanted to make it easier on him.”
The outpouring of support, Smith said, was immediate -- and stunning.
“I figured about 50 percent of the team would participate, based on past experiences,” he said. Instead, it was nearly 100 percent.
“And this was at Christmas, when it was tough for everyone,” he said. “The girls were great, the parents were great.”
“We all have kids,” Smith said. “It makes you stop and think.”
A group of the players delivered the tablets and several other gifts -- all supplied by the girls and their parents -- on Dec. 20 to Isabella and her family at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where she was receiving chemotherapy.
“They’re young teens, and they gave up their friends to hang out with this little girl on a Friday night,” Smith said. “I was proud of them.”
“When we found out about Steve and the Rebels, we were surprised to see the impact of Bella's illness on a group of young girls who didn't even know her,” Lisa Ward said. “We were so touched to hear that the girls took up a collection for our girls and wanted to come visit at the hospital.”
That was when the enormity of what the young girl was facing hit home, Smith said.
“They didn’t expect the reality of the situation,” he said. Isabella was in a germ-free environment, and the girls could see her only through a small 8-by-8 window.
“I knew about what she was going through, but seeing it was difficult,” said Jenna Williams, 16, of Brick. Isabella was losing her hair due to the chemotherapy by then, and was very tired.
“It was very emotional,” Alexis Smith said. “I wish she didn’t have to go through this.”
“The love and hope that all the girls from the soccer team showed my girls made me well up inside,” Harry said.
“It was such an emotional time for all of us,” Lisa said.
“On the way up, the girls were all happy,” Steve Smith said, but after seeing Bella, they walked out of the hospital hand-in-hand, several of them crying. In the car on the way back, they talked about what they could to do help Bella and her family.
“They were Instagraming and tweeting all the way home,” he said.
The players who went told their teammates about what they saw, and quickly the whole team had adopted Bella and her family as part of the Rebels’ family. A second trip on Dec. 29 drew more players, but even for those unable to go visit Bella, their teammates’ experiences drew them in.
“Everyone likes going to cheer her up,” said Emily Errickson, 15, of Lakewood, who was one of the players who was unable to make the hospital trips. “It feels so great to be able to help.”
Lauren Kuhlwein, 15, of Point Pleasant Beach, said supporting the family is a natural thing.
“If it was me in this situation, I’d want everyone to be there to support me, so we have to support her,” she said. “She’s a part of our team.”
In addition to visiting Bella in the hospital and making the bows to raise money to help the family, Harry Ward and Bella’s siblings -- Brianna, and Harry’s older children, Hayley, 13, and Harry, 12 -- visited the Rebels during one of their indoor soccer league games at GoodSports USA in Wall.
“Brianna loves soccer and is so excited to have so many more friends that love and care for her and Bella,” Lisa said.
The team has followed Isabella’s progress -- she was released from the hospital on Jan. 17, and began a second round of chemotherapy on an outpatient basis on Jan. 21 -- watching as Bella has gotten stronger, thanks to videos and updates posted by Harry and Lisa.
In many of the photos Bella is smiling, and videos of her walking the halls of the hospital and meowing -- a game she plays at home with the family’s cats, her mother said -- show a vibrant little girl who hasn’t been knocked down by illness.
Recent tests showed a significant drop in the leukemia cells in Bella’s blood, but Lisa said it could be more than two years before she is fully in remission. If further chemotherapy fails to eradicate the remaining leukemia cells, Bella could need a bone marrow transplant, her parents said. But her progress so far has her family and supporters feeling optimistic that she will beat the leukemia quickly.
The love and support shown by the Rebels has contributed to making the situation easier for the Wards and Bella to bear, Lisa said.
“The most difficult part of Bella's hospital stay was hearing and seeing the fear she had,” Lisa said. “She always asked us to hide her under her blanket and pillow. She would always scream, 'hide me!’ ” when it was time for a treatment.
But as she left the hospital, Harry said, Bella turned to her parents and said, “I had fun here."
“That blew me away,” Harry said.
“I know they (the Rebels) contributed to Bella having fun at RWJ,” Lisa said. “I also think her getting prizes for going through certain situations and meeting new people and therapy dogs was fun for her, too.”
“Bella loves the girls,” Lisa said. “She is shy at first, but I know she will have so much fun with them once she's able to do more.”
“I saw a bright little girl who is special,” Jenna Williams said. “I wanted her to know she’s beautiful, and we wanted her family to know we care.”
“She’s an inspiration,” Alexis Smith, whose father is the coach, said. “Now we say her name before our games, and we have more to play for than just us.”
In addition to the Bows for Bella, Steve Smith and members of the Twin County Soccer Association will be hosting a Scrimmage Fest soccer event for March 16 at the club’s soccer fields in Brick to help raise money to help with the costs of Bella’s care. Lisa resigned from her job at the bank when Bella was diagnosed, and the costs of her care are as yet unknown. A bowling fundraiser was held in early January in Staten Island, where Lisa is from originally, but the Rebels want to add to that help.
“Seeing them follow through means a lot to me,” Steve Smith said. “They want to make a difference in the world, and as a parent and a coach that’s what we want.”
To purchase a Bow for Bella, contact the team through its Facebook page, Twin County Rebels. They also will be available for purchase at the ScrimmageFest.
To follow Isabella’s progress, visit the Isabella Nicole Ward Foundation page on Facebook. There also is a website where you can donate to the family: www.gofundme.com/5nvwvw
The members of the Twin County Rebels are: Gianna Occhiogrosso, Michayla Hazard, Alison Corino, Alexis Smith, Jessie Brand, Christina Panetta, Alexis Gray, Jenna Williams, Nicole Scardilli, Cassidy Meyh, Courtney Richard, Jenna Andujar, Tiana Ring, Emily Errickson, Kerri Crossnohere, Lauren Kuhlwein, Caley Hourihan, Breeana Cassidy, Rachel Weir, Samantha Fondonella, Emily Bush, Jessica Weiner.