By Catherine Cheng, AKOM Editor
Noelle Gregoire was diagnosed with Dysplastic spondylolisthesis, a rare spinal condition, at age five, but she hasn’t let it stop her from living a full, happy life and giving back to her community. Today, Noelle is a successful fundraiser who uses the money she raises to provide toys for children at Tufts Floating Hospital. Noelle is a true inspiration.
AK: How did your diagnosis with Dysplastic spondylolisthesis impact your life and daily activities?
NG: I spent three years in a back brace. The very first brace I had was completely plastic and I had to wear it for 23 hours a day. I could only take it off when I showered. I had to find different things to do because I couldn’t play sports, run or even ride a bike. I spent my time sewing, playing piano, crafting, playing games with my family and reading. I started sewing doll blankets and selling them to raise money for cancer foundations. Reading and crafting kept me busy.
AK: Please tell us a little about how you stayed positive while undergoing treatment for your condition.
NG: My brother and sister told me jokes and entertained me. My sister and I played a lot together. I have always been kind of a happy kid so it was easy to stay positive. Being unhappy doesn’t do anyone any good anyways. Also, there is always someone going through something harder than me. When I had physical therapy, I had a lot of fun so that helped make me happy too. No matter what is happening, there is always a way to find a reason to smile.
AK: During your time at Tufts Floating Hospital, how did the hospital’s reward closet impact your stay and your spirit?
NG: When I went through any procedure, I always knew there would be something exciting for me when I was finished. It helped me because I got to look forward to an exciting surprise. It didn’t matter what the prize was, just that there was something new I could choose. Sometimes the small things make the biggest difference. When I was six, I got a tiny little doll house and I played with it with my sister. It was so cute and small. Another time, I got a video bingo game that I played a lot with my family.
AK: What inspired you to take up swimming after your condition stabilized? How has participation in the activity changed your life?
NG: Swimming is the only activity I can do right now with my back. I started with physical therapy in the pool and had a lot of fun. The doctor said it was a good activity for me to do because there was less chance I could hurt my spine. I also really love the water. Since I started swimming, I have made a lot friends and my coaches are awesome, especially coach Stephanie. I am a lot healthier and now I am strong enough to swim across a lake and raise money for toys for the kids at the hospital. I also started my own charity, Laps 4 Backs, because of swimming and my back.
AK: Now that your condition has stabilized, you’ve started fundraising. Could you tell us a little about your cause and how you raise money?
NG: When I went for an MRI in February of 2014, I went to the prize closet and there were only 2 toys left. I asked them what would happen to the kid after me. They said that the toys were donated and they could only give out what they had. I didn’t think that was right. It meant so much to me to look forward to a prize, I’m sure other kids feel the same way. I decided I needed to do something about it.
Since the only thing I am allowed to do is swim, I figured I would swim across the lake and see if people would donate money to me so I could get toys to bring to the hospital. I swam across the lake in 1 hour and raised over $2,500. My mom and I are really great shoppers, so we were able to stretch the money out really well and bring over 4,000 toys to the hospital.
I decided to raise money throughout the year too so I could keep getting toys. There are a lot of kids that go to the hospital and whenever I go I can see how many toys are left. Now I have a GoFundMe page and I sell bracelets with Laps 4 Backs on it for $2, and T Shirts for $10. This year I also started selling lollipops for $1 each. The local firemen and my grandmother buy a lot of them. Also, this year for my birthday I asked people to give me donations instead of presents so I could get even more toys for the hospital. I just made a toy donation to the hospital on June 25th of 6,000 toys worth over $9,000.
AK: What challenges have you encountered on your fundraising journey and how have you overcome them?
NG: The hardest thing about raising money is I keep getting donations from the same people. It’s hard to get the word out about what I am doing. Once people take the time to hear about what I am doing and what I have been through, they are inspired. Some people get teary eyed and they usually smile. They are amazed by what I am doing. Quite often strangers will hug me or even kiss my head. But the problem is that they like the story but forget about it. So I decided to make business cards to give out to people so they could look up my website and read about my story and donate if they have the means. Even if they can’t donate money, it’s nice to know I can inspire others and hopefully they will also do kind things too.
AK: How has fundraising and giving back to your community impacted your life?
NG: Giving back makes me really happy. I know I am doing a good thing for others and inspiring people to be thoughtful. It’s kind of cool to be that kid. I have also won a couple of awards. I was awarded the Mary Jo Brown Foundation’s Smile Spreader Award in October of 2014 and the Kohl’s Cares Kindness Award in 2015. I know I am a better person for helping others and I think everyone should try to find a way to make a difference. I am only nine and I have a broken back, yet I figured out a way to do it. Everyone has a way, you just need to figure it out.
AK: Did anyone help you on your journey? How have these people inspired you?
NG: Yes. My family has been a big help along the way. My mom helps me raise money, manage the GoFundMe page, and look for good sales on toys. My dad is building a website for me (Laps4backs.org). My brother and sister help pick out, pack, label and deliver all the toys to the hospital. Everyone who has helped me by donating and supporting me really inspire me. I realize that a lot of people benefit from what I am doing, not just the kids at the hospital.
AK: What are your future goals both for yourself and for your fundraising projects?
NG: I want to keep bringing toys to the hospital for all the kids, but I also want to start granting wishes to sick kids because when I was in my first brace, my mom and dad had to find a way to keep me busy and that was hard for them. My mom was a stay at home mom and my dad worked, but they didn’t have a lot of money. Somehow they found a way to get me a sewing machine, Kindle and a keyboard so I could stay happy and busy. I want to be able to help other kids who might need something to help them recover or get though a tough time.
AK: What advice would you give to our readers about following their dreams and making a difference?
NG: Stay positive, even if something doesn’t work out right the first time. Sometimes when you’re given a challenge, it is actually a good thing because nothing is impossible. Never give up on your dreams and anything is possible.
AK: Is there anything else you would like to add?
NG: I hope people read my story and try to do something good for others. It only takes a single thought to make a big difference.
To read more about Noelle or to contribute to her cause, see https://www.gofundme.com/laps4backs2015.