Common name, uncommon bond
In the short time they’ve been acquainted, the young girls have forged a sister-like bond that brings tears to their parents’ eyes.
“From the moment they met, they were instant friends,” said Ron Ballen, father of 12-year-old Zoe. “We call them Big Zoe and Little Zoe . . . they’re so connected.”
That connection stems, in large part, from Big Zoe’s desire to help Little Zoe get better.
In April last year, the Agoura Hills toddler was diagnosed with sarcoma botryoides, a rare type of malignant tumor that appears in the muscle tissue attached to the bone. Only several hundred new cases a year are identified in the United States.
Since her diagnosis, the tiny girl has undergone 42 weeks of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries to remove her bladder, uterus and other reproductive organs. Though her tumor is now gone, it will be at least five years before she is considered in complete remission.
“When she was diagnosed, the tumor was about the size of a grapefruit,” said her father, Jeffrey Feldman. “Her chances of survival were good, (but) we were concerned about her quality of life.”
Zoe Ballen, a sixth-grader at Los Cerritos Middle School in Thousand Oaks, learned of the little girl’s plight last summer when watching some friends play at the Westlake-Agoura softball tournament. She noticed a flier asking the community to donate money to help pay the Feldman family’s exorbitant medical bills.
“I wanted to help,” Big Zoe said. “I felt sad she was going through something like this at such a young age.”
She decided to use her talents on the softball diamond to raise funds for the family.
Before ever meeting Little Zoe in person, the gifted pitcher began collecting money from her own family members every time she struck out a batter.
But what started out as a personal project quickly gained momentum.
With the help of Gina Gooding, the former president of Simi Valley Girls Softball, Big Zoe launched a fundraiser called Strike Out Cancer.
During several league tournaments, attendees could drop money in donation buckets given to all competing teams. In a span of about three weeks, Zoe helped raise roughly $3,000 for the Feldman family.
After one of the softball player’s games, Phil McPherson, the president of the Amanda McPherson Foundation, handed the athlete a check for $500.
Founded in 2004 in memory of Amanda McPherson, the foundation supports research and education in the fields of velo-cardiofacial syndrome, a genetic birth defect, and viral yocarditis, sudden cardiac death. It also supports schools and athletic programs in Ventura County.
“It was amazing,” Zoe said of McPherson’s donation. “He looked me right in the eye and said, ‘It’s more important to think of others than yourself.’”
The middle-schooler took his advice to heart.
In June, about two weeks after she saw the flier, she met the younger Zoe for the first time. She now compares her to a little sister.
“They had an instant connection,” said Jeffrey Feldman, Little Zoe’s father. “When Big Zoe comes over, she lights up. They watch television together, do their nails . . . it’s nonstop.”
When the younger Zoe had to go to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for a chemotherapy session, the elder Zoe made her a photo album and sent daily videos to boost her spirits.
“In one of the videos, she was playing with a pogo stick,” Ron Ballen said. “And Little Zoe was just busting a gut laughing at the antics of Big Zoe.”
In October Zoe Ballen visited her little friend in the hospital. A nurse came into the room to change a needle in the youngster’s port, a routine but painful process.
As the younger Zoe screamed in pain, the elder Zoe began to cry.
“It was almost like a voodoo doll,” Jeffrey Feldman said. “She was feeling the pain right along with our little Zoe . . . her mother had to take her out of the room.”
Zoe Ballen now heads the Zoe to Zoe Helping Hands project, an ongoing effort to encourage others to use their talents for good.
She began speaking to youth softball leagues and teams throughout the Conejo Valley, including those at California Lutheran University and Cal State Northridge.
On Sun., Feb. 10, Opening Day for Simi Valley Girls Softball, the soon-to-be-teenager spoke in front of 2,000 players and their families on the importance of giving back.
“It’s not really a fundraiser; it’s a way of thinking,” said Ron Ballen about Zoe to Zoe. “When she started the Helping Hands project, she started getting messages from kids on Facebook saying, ‘You are an inspiration.’”
Although a few teams have responded to Big Zoe’s message by starting charitable efforts of their own, it’s unclear how farreaching her project has become.
“It’s not something we can really track,” said Amy Ballen, Zoe’s mother. “But it’s planting seeds in people’s minds. If she helps even just one person, it’s worth it.”
Leading by example, the preteen has stood by her friend in good times and in bad.
Despite her physical limitations, Zoe Feldman has returned to Ilan Ramon Day School and has her first post-chemotherapy scan tomorrow. In the foreseeable future, she will need to use an ostomy bag, a prosthetic that collects bodily waste.
The little girl is growing stronger by the day, her parents said.
“She’s excited because her hair should start growing back soon,” her father said. “She asked me to get clips for her hair.”
The father of three said his daughter is his hero.
“She’s pretty special,” he said. “She’s spunky and has more courage than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Zoe Ballen said she plans to continue to help others.
After a softball game two weeks ago, a little girl asked her if it was difficult to follow her dreams.
“I thought, that’s a big question for a little girl,” Zoe said with tears in her eyes. “I put down my equipment. . . and said, ‘Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but it’s a great feeling in the end.’”
To learn more about Zoe Ballen’s efforts, visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/Zoe-to-Zoe-Strike-Out-Cancer-Project/3715...
To learn more about Zoe Felman or to make a contribution to her family, visit https://www.facebook.com/ZoesGotThis.