In her all-too-short life, it was Isabella Regacho’s nature to give. As young as 5, when she and her mom would leave Costco or a grocery store and see someone clearly in need, she’d ask to stop and give a water bottle, a juice drink, a snack from her lunchbox — anything.
She wanted to help any small way she could. It was a trait that continued through the years, until her death in 2010 at age 11. “Bella was that kid. She just had a big heart, and everybody seemed to take to her,” her mother, Melissa Regacho, said Sunday morning.
Melissa, husband Josh and nearly 14-year-old daughter Rebecca were joined by other family members at Oregon Park in Modesto’s airport neighborhood to start what’s planned as an annual event to honor Bella. To keep alive her spirit of giving, they distributed 101 care packages to those gathered for a meal and service by Church in the Park.
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The cloth bags, with “Bella’s Blessing Bags” printed on them, have drawstrings so they can be worn as backpacks and contain knitted hats, gloves, socks, snacks, dental hygiene kits (toothbrush, paste, floss and mouthwash), shampoo, body wash, lotion, ponchos, emergency blankets and water bottles. “This is a way to continue what she would have been doing if she was here,” Melissa said.
Her little girl was a sixth-grader at Mary Lou Dieterich Elementary School when bacterial meningitis claimed her life on Dec. 8, 2018. Even as her death took her from those who loved her, it gave to people she never had the chance to meet.
About two months prior, Bella was looking at her mom’s driver’s license one day and noticed the orange dot sticker indicating Melissa was a registered organ donor. She asked about it, and Melissa explained that when she was dead and had no more use for her organs, she wanted them to help others. Bella said she also wanted to be a donor.
Right after her daughter’s death, Melissa said, “when the time came and they asked in the hospital about organ donation, we knew it was a no-brainer because two months earlier, we’d had that conversation.” Bella’s selfless decision resulted in four people receiving organs.
Her mother said she knows of two other children who survived meningitis because she’s shared her family’s own sad story. Because Bella’s rapidly progressing illness was not diagnosed until it was too late, it was a matter of just 40 hours between early symptoms and death, Melissa said.
It began with a headache, which Melissa figured was probably the start of a sinus infection. But the headache worsened even with pain reliever, and Bella vomited and developed a fever — her temperature was 106 when Melissa got her to the pediatrician. The doctor took a nose swab and said Bella likely had the flu.
The little girl slept through the night but awoke with light sensitivity so severe she couldn’t open her eyes, her mom recalled. Melissa had not long before seen a TV series episode in which a character had meningitis, so she asked Bella to touch her chin to her chest. She was able to, so Melissa doubted her daughter had the illness.
Bella was taken to an emergency room, where a blood test showed her white blood cell count was very elevated, Melissa said. She was given morphine for the pain, and doctors wanted to send her home on antibiotics, saying she had a severe infection.
Soon, though, Bella began having seizures, so she was moved to the critical-care part of the ER, her mom said. When she then began having trouble breathing, the whole room filled with medical staff, Melissa recalled.
By the time the meningitis was diagnosed, it was too late to save her.
“When I tell people Bella’s story, I say, yes, the stiff neck is a classic textbook symptom of meningitis, but you don’t have to have it, and because of that, they didn’t think it was meningitis,” Melissa said.
No one knows a child like a parent, she added, and if a parent suspects meningitis is the problem, insist on having that possibility explored. “I tell them every second counts with meningitis — literally every second.”
As the Ragacho family prepared to distribute Bella’s Blessing Bags on Sunday morning, Melissa said she wished her daughter could have been there helping. It took eight years for the family to come up with a fitting way to honor Bella and keep her memory alive, she said, “and this is something she knew at 5 years old.”
But Bella’s worldview wasn’t shaped in a vacuum. Family friend and fellow Dieterich School parent Adrienne Rossi said Bella’s philanthropic nature was nurtured by her parents. The Ragachos always have been active, supportive parents at Dieterich and in school functions and fundraisers. “They give so much of themselves.”
Bella and Rebecca’s parents rallied to help when Dieterich teachers, students and families needed support, so the “school family” rallied to them when Bella died and when they needed donations to fill the Blessing Bags.
Rebecca, who was just 5 when her big sister died, said she has just a few memories of Bella. Little, funny things, like being upset that Bella was allowed to swim without a life jacket, while Rebecca had to wear one.
But she said that what she’s been told of Bella reflects on her parents, who are good, kindhearted, respectful people. Asked what values they’ve instilled in her, Rebecca said, “So many.”
One example, she said: “Never think that just because someone might not have as much as you, that they’re worth something less than you are.”