A day fit for a princess

It was her day to be a princess, but instead of hogging the spotlight, 3-year-old Leena Bonilla made sure everyone else got plenty of spoiling, too.

As soon as they were offered, she quickly shared her gifts, her candy, and even her magic steed — a.k.a Snickers the pony — with every other girl who had the potential to be a princess, especially her 2-year-old sister.

“Can Ryley come, too?” Leena asked, as soon as she was placed in Snickers’ saddle, after making sure that the princess who brought the pony didn’t want to ride as well. “Snow White, do you want to ride?”

Snow White was really South Kitsap High School sophomore Mallory Lindberg, 16. Wearing a white, flouncy dress, tiara and long, white gloves, she came to Leena’s Port Orchard house Wednesday with not one, but two ponies to give the girl a dream come true courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Leena has been battling leukemia since she was an infant, struggling through numerous chemotherapy sessions and two heartbreaking relapses. The second relapse was just a month ago, her mother, Rachel Bonilla, said.

After the last relapse, Bonilla said, a social worker at the hospital called the foundation to nominate Leena as a wish recipient.

She was accepted, and soon the little girl’s day of pampering, fun and a bit of fairy tale arrived.

Bonilla, who is eight months pregnant with her third child, smiled as she watched her oldest daughter trying not to trip on the new pink dress the foundation provided, complete with angel wings and a little purple purse.

But tears never seemed far behind as Bonilla tried to describe what the day meant to her.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she sighed. “It’s heartbreaking, but happy all at the same time.”

She said all the adults knew that starting Monday, Leena would be back at the hospital for a two-week round of chemotherapy to prepare her for a tissue transplant on June 17. The tissue is made up of stem cells collected from the placenta soon after Ryley’s birth by Bonilla and her husband, Pete, who knew someday they might need them to save Leena’s life.

But there are a lot of complications in the procedure that might be her daughter’s last hope, said Bonilla. There’s always a risk in any operation, she said, and afterwards Leena’s body could reject the foreign tissue. And even if the transplant is successful, Leena still faces the possibility of stunted growth, learning disabilities or other problems in the future.

For the moment, though, all this seemed far away as Leena frolicked with friends, family and ponies in her front yard. And that, her mom said, was the point.

“We’re trying to make every day a party,” she said. “It’s important for her to know that she’s loved.”

“She’s such a tough, little girl,” said family friend Diane McKendry, who traveled from Seattle for Leena’s party.

Indeed, the toddler had a remarkably calm, composed demeanor as she surveyed the many strange people and animals milling around her, which friends and family attributed to the many doctors’ visits, hospital trips and medical procedures that had dominated her short life so far.

However, her dad worried all that composure would be gone as soon as it was time for the ponies to leave.

“That will be the worst part,” he said.

But thanks to another surprise waiting in her room, a little bit of Leena’s princess dream will be there for her every day. Local Make-A-Wish volunteers Bruce Marotta and Suzanne Patrick gave her room a royal makeover, complete with a bed fit for a queen with a specially-designed headboard, draperies and a white veil covering.

The crowning touch, however, was the mural painted by artist Michelle Poulk that transformed one entire wall into a green mountainside full of flowers under a blue sky. In the distance a unicorn ran by a white castle.

Poulk said she purposely did not paint a princess, instead designing the scene so Leena could lie in her bed and imagine herself as the princess running through the fields with the unicorn.

“I wanted to provide a total environment for her, a place to help her heal,” Poulk said.

Poulk was just one of the many people Marotta and Patrick found to volunteer their time and pull off the party with barely a month and only $2,000 to spend. Farmland Foto donated ponies Snickers and Magic, Marotta built the headboard and Patrick enlisted her son’s girlfriend, Lindberg, to be a princess.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation, based in Phoenix, Ariz., was founded in 1980 and has since granted wishes to more than 97,000 children with life-threatening medical conditions worldwide.

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