Anyone who knew her will tell you: Nine-year-old Riley Hannah Sandler was an exceptional little girl. Beautiful and bright, she had a smile ready and kind words for everyone around her. Her pals at Timber Lake Camp in Shandaken, New York, knew her as someone who went out of her way to make them feel special. Her friend Delaney remembers “visiting day” at camp, when she was upset to see her parents leave, and Riley took it upon herself to cheer her up with a game and funny stories. Riley was always ready to make a new friend—or to help one she already had.
Devastatingly, on August 18, 2014, her last day of camp, Riley passed away of respiratory failure. Despite this tragedy, her family is ensuring that the warmth and love that Riley radiated throughout her life will endure long into the future. Last year, parents Ian and Mackenzie Sandler established the Riley Sandler Memorial Foundation in honor of their daughter, hoping to encourage students to make the world a nicer place.
“At the very basic level, we’re trying to promote and capture the spirit of Riley,” says Ian (B.G.S. ’96). “The idea is that if this rubs off, then people will be kinder to one another. From being a better part of your community to the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the impact of kindness is dramatic.”
In addition to providing support for New York schools to implement projects that encourage kindness and caring in their young students, the Sandlers have also created the Riley Hannah Sandler Scholarship in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan.
The Riley Sandler Scholarship will be awarded to students with need who demonstrate kindness and empathy through their activities in school, their community, or their relationships with others. This could mean a community volunteer, someone who stood up for a person in need, or someone who is simply a good friend to others.
“There are many scholarships that focus on athletics, and many that focus on academics. While these are important, we wanted to concentrate on kindness, and highlighting how important it is to be kind and to care about others. We are driven by who Riley was—she was just a wonderful person who smiled all the time and viewed everyone as a potential friend,” Ian says.
“We left the scholarship open a bit to interpretation by U-M,” he continues. “We’re looking forward to seeing how it’s implemented, because there are so many ways to show kindness, caring, and empathy. We’re also looking forward to meeting the students, telling them Riley’s story, and hearing theirs.”
As for scholarship recipients, they’ll benefit not only from generous financial support, but also recognition for being a good person and encouragement to continue to make the world a kinder place.
“We hope that Riley Scholarship recipients look at the world with excitement, and that they help others without expectation for something in return,” Ian says. “We hope they will be ambassadors of Riley in life, doing good and improving the world around them.”