NILES - Alaina Lewis had one wish this holiday season: to be a normal kid.
Born with spina bifida and later diagnosed with hydrocephalus, the 12-year-old from Berlin Center has spent much of her life in and out of hospital beds, either preparing for or recovering from major surgeries, including to her brain.
"I want to spend time with my friends without worrying about someone having to hang onto me or anything," Alaina said of the condition, which affects the nervous system and makes simple movements difficult.
With a little help from Hydro Angels Over America, Alaina's family and friends were able to provide her with a Christmas wish she won't soon forget.
Dozens of loved ones crowded into the Fraternal Order of Eagles building in Niles, on Friday for a surprise presentation of a custom bicycle built to Alaina's specifications.
"It's a blessing," Alaina's mother, Richelle, said. "This is truly a Christmas miracle that she is able to have and ride a bike. She can finally be a normal 12-year-old kid, because her life has not been normal."
Tribune Chronicle / Ashley Newman
Alaina Lewis, 12, of Berlin Center, sits on Santa’s lap during a celebration on Dec. 20, where she received a holiday wish from Hydro Angels Over America in the form of a specially made bicycle. photo by Ashley Newman
Sporting a healthy grin, happily sharing the moment with the most important people in her life, the seventh-grader's difficult journey was nowhere in evidence.
"She handles everything with a smile on her face," her mother said. "Whenever she is down or out, she takes a deep breath and says, 'OK, I'm over it.' She takes everything in stride."
Alaina, a twin, was born six weeks premature, weighing just three pounds and nine ounces.
At three days old, she was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, also known as "water on the brain," which is the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid inside the skull.
The day after the diagnosis, the infant underwent her first major surgery to relieve a pressure build-up inside the skull.
Twelve years and 10 major surgeries later, the Jackson-Milton Middle School student continues to fight the condition.
In 2013 alone, she had brain surgery in February, followed by surgeries on each of her legs.
Richelle said the effects of the spina bifida and hydrocephalus can be devastating.
"She gets a lot of bad headaches and has a lot of memory loss," Richelle said. "She has absolutely no balance. When she walks, it's all about getting from one point to the next.
"She can walk, but not like you and I walk."
While battling the potentially deadly diseases, Alaina has yearned to simply play with her twin sister and other friends.
Considering the seriousness of the affliction, activities like riding a bike always seemed far out of her reach.
However, family and friends want her to know nothing is impossible.
"We've always told her 'can not' better not be in your vocabulary," Alaina's grandmother, Linn Lewis, said.
That mantra was proven accurate when Alaina's mother came across the Facebook page for Hydro Angels Over America.
Hydro Angels is a nonprofit partnership of volunteers devoted to helping families living with hydrocephalus. Each year, the group grants 10 Christmas wishes to afflicted children across the United States and Canada.
"I had to write an essay about our 'hydro warrior,'" Richelle said. "So, I wrote it and told them all about Alaina. I told them she has always wanted a bike, but has never been able to ride one.
"They granted her wish."
The group paid for the bike, which features a special seat and wheels. The frame was purchased through Walmart and then adjusted by Frankford Bicycle in Girard.
Richelle said it was important to Alaina that the bike not stand out.
"All of the handicapped adaptable bikes look different," she said. "Alaina wanted one that looked as normal as possible. That's what we got for her."
After accepting the bicycle, loved ones could not hold back their tears as Alaina climbed onto the seat and began to pedal.
"It's just such a great thing," an emotional Richelle said. "A lot of friends and family came out. It means a lot to us."