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Bonamegos match thousands in donations for student's medical bills

Grosse Pointe Woods senior Alanna Sparks poses in her apartment at University Meadows on Wednesday, Dec. 5.

For six months, Grosse Pointe Woods senior Alanna Sparks ignored her headaches. Her mother, Cindy Sparks, thought she was overextending herself: working too hard, sleeping too little, not drinking enough water and not eating right. 

Then, Alanna woke up in the middle of the night in pain. She got dizzy and vomited. Any time Alanna had vomited in the past, she had a fever — this time, she didn’t. 

Something was deeply wrong.

Alanna discovered she had a brain cyst on Valentine’s Day 2018. Doctors were extremely alarmed — the cyst's dimensions were four inches by four inches by three inches and it was pushing against several parts of her brain.

Courtesy Photo | Alanna Sparks

The doctors told her they were surprised she survived with the cyst as long as she had.

Alanna had surgery to drain the cyst two weeks later. The recovery time was supposed to be quick: two days in the hospital, then two days with 24-hour care at home. The timing would work perfectly with her single mother’s maximum paid time off.

However, Alanna had had the cyst for so long that her brain was used to it taking up space. After the cyst was removed, simple tasks became remarkably difficult and Alanna wasn’t able to leave the hospital until March 20.

Once she left the hospital, Alanna’s nine-year-old nieces helped her eat. She had to undergo physical therapy to learn to walk again, first taking steps wearing a vest with a cord attached to the ceiling to catch her if she fell. Her double vision was so bad that she had to wear an eye patch for six months.

Still, Alanna was determined to get better. Two days after she got out of the hospital, she made special accommodations and went back to Central Michigan University to see a performance by Jesse McCartney, who serenaded her on stage. 

Throughout Alanna’s recovery, one of her biggest goals was to return to her summer job as a photographer at her "favorite place on earth," SpringHill Camps. Cindy was worried, but Alanna responded to her mother's concerns by saying she was “gonna work for it.” 

She did: Alanna said SpringHill was one aspect of her “normal life” she could get back. 

Still, her life wasn’t fully back to normal. Even with insurance, her medical bills were a struggle to pay off. She tried to pay them on her own but couldn’t make enough for payments even while working three jobs: one as a Central Michigan Life staff photographer, another as a Target cashier and the last as a weekend photographer at SpringHill. 

But Alanna had more supporters than she realized -- and they included former CMU football coach John Bonamego and his wife Paulette. Alanna loosely knew the Bonamegos through their brief interactions at church and her work at Target. 

Paulette — a lover of social media — followed Alanna’s Twitter and noticed she was posting less often, with some tweets alluding to health issues. Paulette sent her a direct message, giving Alanna her cell phone number and asking for her to send a text letting her know if she was OK.

The texting started to become frequent. Paulette would check in on Alanna at least once a week. One day, Paulette just sent a picture of a cute teddy bear, something Alanna said made her day.

“(Paulette’s texts were) like a connection to school,” Alanna said. “She just kind of took me in and said, ‘I’m gonna love on this girl.’”

Emotional support wasn’t all the Bonamegos provided. They decided to match each donation on Alanna’s GoFundMe campaign until she reaches her $6,000 goal. 

John made some calls to find more donors. He also shared about the matching donations on Twitter, writing that “The Holiday Season is one of Hope & Giving” and that Alanna is “an incredibly courageous young lady.”

The donations started pouring in, and with names Alanna didn’t recognize. The GoFundMe has almost reached the goal and had raised $5,305 in eight days.

“I was just really overwhelmed, in the best way,” Alanna said. “Because they’re treating me like one of their own and they don’t know me well.”

Alanna isn’t the only one who has been overwhelmed by the support. Cindy was surprised when one of her church friends who barely knew Alanna donated $1,000 to the GoFundMe. 

“I was like, 'My goodness, people are so generous!'” Cindy said. “It just blew me away.”

Both Cindy and Alanna use the word "blessing" to describe their experience.

“I’m a big believer in the phrase ‘blessed to be a blessing,’” Alanna said. “So if you’ve got something that can bless someone else, you’re already blessed — but passing that on is just an extension of it, and you’re sharing more good in the world.”

“I definitely feel loved,” Alanna added. “That’s the only way I can put it.”