When popular boy band Why Don’t We hits State Farm Arena on Friday, a special fan will be cheering for the pop quintet.
Savannah Aguilar, a 13-year-old from Flowery Branch, is the first child ever diagnosed with a difficult-to-pronounce, rare cancer that affects smooth muscles: leiomyosarcoma of the heart. Yet, like many girls her age, she’s been faithfully listening to the WDW guys — Zach Herron, Jack Avery, Daniel Seavey, Corbyn Besson and Jonah Marais — since last year, when she was in seventh grade.
First, their music helped her deal with the death of her grandmother. And now, their songs are her soundtrack as she endures grueling surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy treatments to combat the aggressive cancer she was diagnosed with in August.
Why Don’t We is part of the lineup of the annual “Jingle Ball” produced by iHeartRadio (and locally, Power 96.1), and Savannah is slated to introduce a special video featuring the band in Atlanta. The Jonas Brothers, Khalid, Niall Horan, Lewis Capaldi and Zara Larsson complete the bill, but Savannah — who is clad in a long-sleeved Why Don’t We T-shirt, one of four pieces of band clothing she usually wears on her pre-teen frame — is focused on the smooth-cheeked young men behind the songs “8 Letters” and “Something Different.”
On a drizzly day at the end of October, Savannah and a group of patients and parents were ushered into a small room at the Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where, on the Garth Brooks Stage (named for when the country behemoth visited in 2014), Why Don’t We strolled out to surprise them with a brief performance.
Savannah, though, received her own private audience with the group a few minutes before their appearance.
“I thought, ‘something is happening,’ and I started shaking so bad,” Savannah recalled, eyes wide and face stretching into a smile. “I told my mom and dad that maybe Why Don’t We could teleport here…and then I saw them and my heart just dropped.”
The Los Angeles-based quintet’s appearance was facilitated through a national partnership between supplemental insurance company Aflac and iHeartRadio; the companies also collaborate with Musicians on Call, an organization that arranges to bring live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities.
“For kids who can’t go to Jingle Ball, we want to bring it to them,” said Shannon Watkins, vice president of brand and creative services at Aflac, at the group’s CHOA performance. “We’re just here to bring a little more holiday cheer.”
During their 15-minute set, Why Don’t We harmonized during the plaintive ballad “8 Letters” as Seavey strummed an acoustic guitar. The group generated a whoosh of adrenaline with the toe-tapper “Come to Brazil” and also shared the Ed Sheeran-penned “What Am I” as a couple dozen young patients and their guests nodded along to the music.
A few weeks later, calling from the road in Texas before their first Jingle Ball performance of the season, the guys reflected on their Atlanta visit.
“We’re super busy, but any time we can have a patient come out to a show or have them have a special day, we love that. There’s probably been six or seven times we’ve (visited hospitals),” said Marais. “Just seeing how much it means to those kids and realizing that they’re always there in bed…sometimes they come out to get food, but that’s their whole world. When we have the opportunity to come in and sing some songs, you can see the joy in their eyes.”
All band members of Why Don’t We recalled their time with Savannah at CHOA — she also met the group in September when they staged a one-day pop-up shop in Atlanta — and expressed their appreciation of her devoted fandom.
“She said she has every piece of our merchandise. That is legendary,” said Avery. “She is the sweetest, brightest kid ever.”
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