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Turning adversity into opportunity

Turning adversity into opportunity

By Nancy Price

As humans, we are creatures of comfort. We don’t like experiencing unexpected challenges. When prayers are unanswered, we feel like God is nowhere around. We may shut down and not want to get back up.

In Kathleen Soller’s experience, a life-threatening disease became an opportunity to help and inspire others. She ultimately earned a place in the 2020 500 Festival Princess Program and was awarded the Marlyne Sexton 500 Festival Queen Scholar Award.

Soller, a Center Grove resident, sophomore at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame and 2018 Roncalli High School graduate, was diagnosed with primary mediastinal large B cell lymphoma at age 17. Yet, putting her life on hold indefinitely was not an option.

Soller is a 2018 Roncalli High School graduate and a sophomore at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame. (Photo by Neal Smith)

“Once we knew her chemo schedule she immediately asked for a calendar and started making plans for re-arranging a few dates of treatment so she could attend an overnight cross county camp, run in a cross country meet and attend a weeklong summer camp,” said her mother Joanne Soller. “She proposed all of these ideas to her doctors (I thought they were all too risky) and her doctors agreed she could do them all. She kept very active and busy during her chemo, which helped. There were many emotional times but overall she handled it well.”


During chemo treatments, Soller stayed positive by planning her “wish” through the Make-A-Wish Foundation: a Mediterranean cruise with her family. After five months of chemo at Riley Hospital for Children, she felt inspired to give back to others. “I became very passionate about (Riley’s) mission and the mission of dance marathons that support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals,” Soller said.

“We were not at all surprised she wanted to give back to Make-A-Wish,” Joanne added. “She and I are both now volunteer wish grantors. We had two amazing wish grantors who helped plan her Make a Wish trip and always made her feel special and have something to look forward to. We went on a trip of a lifetime and felt that we needed to do something to give back to help other families.”

Kathleen and her family on her Make-A-Wish trip last year. In top row, from left to right: sister, Lizzy, brother, Ryan and Kathleen. Bottom row ,from left to right: Kathleen’s mom (Joanne) and Dad (Pat). (Submitted photo)

Soller was involved with the South Deanery Dance Marathon to benefit Riley kids in high college and continues her work at Saint Mary’s College Dance Marathon. She also participates with Camp Kesem at Notre Dame “to give back to kids who have been impacted by a parent’s cancer, and I served as a counselor this summer for the virtual camp, Kesem at Home,” she said. In addition, Soller was on the Anna’s Celebration of Life Foundation Youth Board (which provides gifts to special needs children) and is still involved with Make-A-Wish at Notre Dame, where she services as vice president. As well, she serves for Riley Family Outreach, and is involved with Timmy Global Health of Notre Dame, which expands access to health care for underprivileged communities in Quito, Ecuador.


“My triumph over illness has changed me for the better,” Soller said. “I am grateful for my experience with cancer because I know how strong I am, and I know that I am being called to serve others. It made me realize I am called to be a nurse, and I would love to be a pediatric oncology nurse and return to Riley. I saw (the nurses’) passion for serving others and it inspired me to do the same.”

“Kathleen is an incredibly positive person who believes in giving back,” said Jennifer Ulsomer, senior regional director of program for Make-A-Wish Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. “Kathleen exudes many qualities like community-focused through giving back to her community and others through volunteering and fundraising for organizations like Riley Children’s Foundation and having a strong faith that would make her a great representative for the 500 Festival Princess Program. She is someone that kids should look up.”

Preparing to kiss the Yard of Bricks at the Speedway. (Photo by Neal Smith)


As a 500 Festival Princess, Soller will serve as an ambassador of her hometown, college and the festival. Princesses are involved in statewide outreaches and volunteer at 500 Festival events. Each Princess receives a $1,000 scholarship made possible by Marlyne Sexton, an Indianapolis philanthropist and president of The Sexton Companies and the 500 Festival Foundation.

As 500 Festival Queen Scholar, Soller will receive an additional $1,553 educational scholarship from Fifth Third Bank. Due to the pandemic, she will participate in a variety of virtual community outreach activities throughout the year. “Hopefully she and the princesses will get to participate next year,” Joanne said. “I am guessing she will be the longest reigning queen in the history of the 500.”

For more information about the 500 Festival Princess Program, go to 500festival.com/college-programs/princess-program/overview.



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