Archdeacon: Remembering the joy of Little Miss Sunshine

BELLBROOK — Easter is a time of resurrection, rebirth, unbounded belief.

All that was brought to bronze and granite life in a striking memorial that appeared a few days ago in a back corner of Bellbrook Cemetery just north of town.

While it marks the grave of Caleigh Hildebrandt— known as “Little Miss Sunshine” by people around Bellbrook, in the South Dixie offices of McGohan Brabender in Dayton and especially at the U.S. Air Force Marathon — the artistic rendering signifies her sudden new life, her parents say, not the 24-year-old’s death on October 5, 2017.

The sculpture that highlights the work shows her joyously breaking free from the wheelchair she was confined to her whole life.

She’s barefoot, wearing her favorite jeans and a t-shirt that says “Faith” — her middle name — across her chest.

You see those long, thin fingers that people used to admire and a suddenly-straightened backbone, something no one ever saw.

Her left arm is reaching to the sky. Her head is tilted back and, as her long hair floats behind her, there’s a radiant smile on her face as she looks heavenward.

Her dad, Randy Hildebrandt, a retired U. S. Air Force lieutenant colonel who now works a civilian job at Wright Patterson AFB, said he and his wife, Bonnie, sent “hundreds and hundreds of pictures” to the acclaimed Randolph Rose Collection in Yonkers, New York so the artists there could make the most accurate likenesses of their daughter’s features.

“We have lots of pictures of Caleigh smiling — that’s all she did — but where was I going to find that look she had when she first saw the Lord?” Randy said.

“He looked at thousands of photos,” Bonnie said quietly.

“Finally, I went to a videotape of her on the back on her Uncle John’s speedboat,” Randy said with a smile. “She was bouncing around and she was just soooo excited. I thought, ‘That’s it!’”

After the sculpture was completed, the Hildebrandts brought it to Morrison Monuments in Bellbrook, where Matt Morrison — helped by his wife Beth and dad Larry – came up with a perfect base that includes a Cat’s Eye brown granite slab from India topped by a jet black granite cube, etched with a picture of Caleigh as a smiling young woman on one side and, on the other, as a jubilant three-year-old playing in the sand on the beach in Destin Florida.

The joy the completed work exudes is a reminder of another unbridled moment in Caleigh’s life.

It was the day she experienced heaven on earth when she became one of the most celebrated, inspiring, universally-loved people to finish the Air Force Marathon in its 26-year history.

‘Just a precious young lady’

Born with spina bifida and the myriad medical problems that come with it, Caleigh had over 40 surgeries.

That didn’t deter her from tackling life, whether it was graduating from Bellbrook High in 2012, handling her job at McGohan Branbender – where founder Pat McGohan dubbed her “Little Miss Sunshine” and named her the company’s CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) – or going snow skiing.

“When she told us she wanted to ski, we contacted the Paralympic Ski Association in Park City, Utah and we went there,” Bonnie said smiling, but shaking her head. “She came back with a broken leg, but she didn’t tell us until the end the day there because she didn’t want the skiing to stop.”

In 2015, when Caleigh saw her dad and older brother RJ training for the Air Force Marathon, she asked when it was going to be her turn and Randy said “next year.” That following spring her dad made good on his promise and they began training.

He’d place her small body in a Burley jogging stroller and would push her around Bellbook as he ran.

After one of those sessions, I talked to Caleigh at Bellbrook Park. In a career of taking to athletes of every stripe, it stands out as one of my favorite interviews of all time.

She was a delight.

She wore a T-shirt that read “In Training” across the front. Although riding in the Burley was bumpy and hot and confining, she hadn’t complained that day, except to tweak her dad a bit and tell him to pick up the pace.

“She can’t walk, but she knows how to run the marathon,” Randy grinned. “She tells me to just keep going, one step at a time. One day at a time.”

That’s how she’d always approached her difficult life and for this marathon attempt she would end up tested like never before.

Two weeks before the race, she got devastating news.

She was diagnosed with cancer — Stage IV carcinoma — that already had spread to her liver, bladder and spine.

Everyone thought the marathon dream now was dead, but she was adamant about competing and finally her doctor admitted the mental boost for her might eclipse the physical threat.

Five days before the race, she had surgery at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to inset a port so she could begin chemotherapy treatments.

A day later she nearly died during her first chemo session when she had a seizure that lasted 40 minutes.

By race day she’d already had several chemo treatments and she got another early that morning. Twice during the race Bonnie brought her to a support van for medical procedures.

Some six hours after they began the race, Randy and Caleigh came down the row of planes that lined the final stretch. The crowd that remained began to chant Caleigh’s name.

And then, just a couple of strides before the end, Randy stopped, scooped his daughter into his arms and carried her across the finish line.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.

While Caleigh earned a medal, she also raised $30,000 for local Special Wish kids that day.

No matter what her effort, she always did it with someone else in mind.

She loved to cook for the local fire department and she was a big proponent of the Bellbrook Sugarcreek Optimist Club’s Avenue of Flags campaign that gets local residents to place American flags in front of their homes and businesses on national holidays.

She was involved in the praise and worship group at Christ’s Church in Sugarcreek Township and had a special affinity for the kids there.

Jennifer Santoro, the wife of Pastor Paul Santoro, said Caleigh never focused on her own challenges:

“She didn’t even consider the spina bifida. She didn’t want to talk about that. She was just Caleigh, with a smile on her face and love in her heart.”

“Just a precious young lady,” Pastor Santoro said. “Very sweet. So kind.”

“If she saw someone who was hurting, someone in the church who was a little sad, she’d go right up to them and hold their hand or put her arm around them,” Jennifer said. “She had that special way about her.”

“She taught all of us that life is a people sport,” Randy said.

Although she passed away 6 ½ years ago, her legacy continues.

Her parents — Bonnie running for her first time ever — have completed two half-marathons in her honor and raised money for the Special Wish Foundation and purchased 50 suitcases for kids who’d make those dream trips.

Their charity efforts also helped open a pantry in Managua, Nicaragua.

Randy said people there named it Caleigh’s Kitchen: “It feeds kids who were eating from the garbage dump.”

They sent Caleigh’s jogging stroller to a Nicaraguan boy who was unable to walk and whose only transport was a tattered lawn chair placed in an old wheelbarrow that his family pushed around.

They gave Caleigh’s new electric wheels to a wheelchair-bound man they met at Lowes after he told them he hadn’t been able to keep up with his family at Disney World using his hand-propelled chair.

Meanwhile, Christ’s Church has opened a preschool and kindergarten that now has 112 children. They call it Caleigh’s Place.

Caleigh’s brother RJ, who lives in Kettering, has a 2 ½ year old son named Phoenix.

“Out of the ashes,” Randy said quietly. “New life.”

“We think Caleigh might have had a little something to do with that,” Bonnie smiled. “She wanted to send us a little joy and Phoenix is that. He’s 110 percent joy.”

RJ writes music along with working at WPAFB and a few days ago he released a song called “Faith” that chronicles his relationship with his sister throughout their lives.

Randy said it’s now available on several music apps, including SoundCloud (

Unbreakable bond

Before Caleigh was born, Bonnie and Randy found out she was going to have some severe medical challenges.

At first, Randy said, “You mourn the loss of what you thought was going to be a normal situation.”

Caleigh was born by C-section and right after that the nurse was crying, Bonnie said:

“I was terrified. Caleigh’s head was so swollen by hydrocephalus and I didn’t want to see her. I didn’t think I could handle it.”

They brought Caleigh to her anyway and Bonnie remembers: “She was shrieking. It was just this ear-piercing cry. ... Obviously, she had a headache.

“They lay her on my chest and I said, ‘It’s OK, Baby.’ And instantly there was silence.”

“She heard your voice,” Randy said. “She knew you already.”

“The moment her body hit my body, she stopped crying,” Bonnie said. “She was totally comforted.”

That began an unbreakable bond between mother and daughter that lasted until Caleigh took her last breath.

Bonnie and Randy — and their sons, RJ and Tyler — realized they had an extraordinary presence in Caleigh.

“Her sky was always blue,” Randy said. “She had a saying: ‘Life is tough, but life is good.’”

Because Caleigh was so active at their church, the Santoros initially planned to set aside an area in the new school they were building where she could read to the children. They planned to call it Caleigh’s Corner.

But when the cancer hit in force and that plan no longer seemed possible, Pastor Santoro let Caleigh know somehow she’d still be a part of the venture.

The Hildebrandts said the pastor and his wife told them when they went on vacation after that, they were walking on the beach when they got some heavenly inspiration.

They decided to name their school Caleigh’s Place.

Today the two-story structure — with its classrooms, gymnasium, reading areas and playground — is thriving.

The Hildebrandts live nearby and Bonnie said one day a while back she found herself driving right behind the school van

“I’m reading Caleigh’s Place on it and next thing I’m bawling my eyes out,” she said. “But then the van turns and, as it was going up the hill, I could see two little boys in the back poking each other and just carrying on the way boys do.

“Right then, I was like, ‘God does have a sense of humor! He’s taking care of me.’

“And I went from crying to laughing.”

Letting go

In early August of 2017, Caleigh was admitted to the ICU at Cincinnati Children’s and would spend 60 rough days there.

She’d signed up for the Marathon that September, but by then she was far too sick. The cancer had spread. Pneumonia had set in. She’d lost her ability to speak.

Her dad did compete — he wore her race number on his back — and another relative FaceTimed his effort back to the hospital, where nurses had decorated a sun-drenched patio with race signs and brought Caleigh — with her mom at her side — out to watch.

Nineteen days later she died.

Just before Caleigh passed, Randy and Bonnie brought her back to their Sugarcreek Township home, so she could see her dog and be put into their bed, where she’d spent the early days of her cancer.

She died in her mother’s arms.

“When Caleigh passed, we all saw the look on her face,” Bonnie said quietly. “There was joy. It was very dramatic. It was a prayer being answered.

“That’s when I knew I could let her go. She had been so sad for so long in the hospital and now she was free. I said, ‘Caleigh, you run to Him!’ And she did. And then ... she was gone.”

That moment is captured in memorial that was unveiled in bronze and granite a few days ago.

It’s a symbol of resurrection, rebirth, unbounded belief.

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