For quite a while after Nate and Carrie Bisbee lost their artistically inclined daughter, Ella, when she was just 8?, they couldn't do much beyond breathe shallowly, move slowly and speak softly.
It was Nate's sister, Leslie Jordan, who suggested some months after Ella's death from an accidental fall during a family vacation in mid-2010 that they start a fund to do something for children in her honor.
Soon, the Ella Bisbee Fund was accepting donations to create an arts-and-crafts room at the Children's Museum of Sonoma County, a work in progress. Its proponents are raising money to create a place of discovery for kids in a former church next door to late "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz's museum in northwest Santa Rosa.
Nate Bisbee, a Santa Rosa architect who met his wife at Montgomery High School in the early 1990s, said that sponsoring an arts studio was his sister's idea. "I don't think Carrie and I could have made it happen, in the state we were in," he said.
Today, Ella's fund (ellabisbee.org) at Community Foundation Sonoma County has brought in more than $120,000 from donations and fundraisers that include concerts, dine-out events and doll-making workshops.
The biggest single event for the fund was the 2011 Human Race. The team, Loving Ella, raised more than $25,000.
"We were shocked, really," said Nate, 37. "People came from everywhere to walk with us and run with us. We didn't expect that to happen."
Since he was a kid growing up in Santa Rosa, Nate knew about the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County's Human Race, the largest in the nation. But taking part last year when nearly 10,000 runners and walkers raised $870,000 for 252 nonprofit organizations astounded him.
"It's amazing how many people were there," Nate said, and how many human causes. "It's pretty profound."
The Ella team aspires to collect $20,000 in pledges prior to this year's Human Race (humanracenow.org), which steps off from Slater Middle School on Sonoma Avenue at 8 a.m. on May 5.
Nate and Carrie have found it's therapeutic to take part in the Human Race and the other efforts to attract donations to a Children's Museum art room in Ella's memory.
"It's a way to channel grief, sharing with people something we know is important," Nate said. The goal of the fund opened in Ella's memory is to create at the fledgling museum a space for youngsters to explore their creativity through arts and crafts.
The museum's founder and executive director, Collette Michaud, said that as an artist herself, she's thrilled with the Bisbee family's commitment to sponsor what is expected to be called Ella's Arts Studio.
The plan is to locate it in a small, existing home on the museum grounds. Even before the idea of an arts studio was born, there was an intention to create near that house an exploration garden with a butterfly theme emphasizing the cycle of life and metamorphosis.
"Ella, it turns out, loved butterflies and loved drawing butterflies," Michaud said. The arts studio "is exactly where it should be," she said.
The museum is expected to open late next year.
One of the kids eager to play and explore there is Ella's younger sister, Catherine, who's 5.
Her dad said his family and its supporters reached the goal of raising $120,000 for the museum quicker than expected. In the future, he said, they may look into other ways to serve local children.