Ten-year-old Marlee Davenport loves Taylor Swift. For the most part, Marlee and Swift are very different, but sometimes Marlee thinks they are alike — like when Marlee gets up in front of crowds numbering more than a thousand, or when Marlee got to see her face on a billboard recently.
Riley Children’s Foundation chose the local fourth grader to be one of four patients for an Indianapolis billboard campaign to encourage more people to purchase a Riley Children’s Hospital license plate. Marlee spent six months at Riley after birth and underwent more than 19 surgeries once doctors discovered she was missing most of her rib cage and unable to breathe on her own.
“I just really like informing them about what kids like me have been through,” Marlee said. “Riley is my favorite hospital.”
Marlee is bubbly and exuberant. Many children and adults fear public speaking, but Marlee does not. When she stands in front of large groups, she may seem small, but she said big things are often on her mind.
“I mostly think about Taylor Swift when I’m up there,” Marlee said. “I think about her giving her Grammy speech.”
Like Swift, Marlee said she loves her fans, and they love her back.
Rachel Davenport, Marlee’s mom, said Marlee’s being chosen for the billboard campaign wasn’t much of a surprise. For the past few years, Marlee and her family have been active spokespeople for the hospital. Every year they participate in IU Dance Marathon, and Marlee regularly tells her story in front of groups across the state.
“All of the fundraising has been her idea,” Rachel said. “She told me, ‘I need to do something.’ So I’ve just been facilitating because she’s 10.”
Marlee may be 10, but often her schedule reads like that of an adult. It is peppered with things like fundraising dinners and committee meetings with IUDM.
“I’ve said she relates better to college students than to people her own age,” Rachel said. “She can talk to them. She’s even become friends with them. They’ll call and ask to come over, and I’m like, ‘You really want to come to my house and hang out with a 10-year-old?’ and they do.”
Rachel said she thinks Marlee’s health issues brought her into maturity faster than some other children.
“Spending a lot of time in hospitals and around adults helps you grow up,” Rachel said.
Despite her grown-up tone, packed schedule and detailed career plans — first, dance marathon president at Bloomington High School South, then president of IUDM, then working for Riley if president of the United States doesn’t work out — Marlee is still unmistakably 10 years old.
The tracheostomy doesn’t keep her from swinging on monkey bars, riding her bike or bouncing wildly on the trampoline. A metal stand next to her bed holds thousands of dollars of life-saving respiratory equipment, but the other side is piled with stuffed animals. A nurse follows Marlee to school every day, but that doesn’t bother her.
“I kind of feel like I’m a little bit like a pop star and I have a body guard,” Marlee said.
Rachel said some of the biggest hurdles Marlee faces are emotional. Her small size sometimes bothers her. Academically, she matches the level of her peers, but physically, she stands at least a foot shorter than most children her age.
“We’re trying to get her to four feet tall,” Rachel said. “When she asks I always tell her, ‘Well, dynamite comes in small packages, and you are certainly dynamite.’”
Rachel said she expects the family’s involvement with Riley may lessen at some point, but right now they plan to keep raising awareness as long as Marlee is able and as long as she continues to want to do so.
“This seems like it’s helping to shape her into the person I hope for her to be,” Rachel said. “I would never have thought about doing anything like this. It feels like we’ve come full circle.”