While Ashley Garza of Bensenville fought cancer for more than a year, her mother says the 13-year-old coped through humor and sass.
"To our family, Ashley was the bravest, bravest little girl ever," Concha Garza said Wednesday. "She fought so hard and wanted to kick cancer in the butt, as she used to say. She made us laugh sometimes when we were crying about her being sick."
Ashley, a seventh-grader at Blackhawk Middle School in Bensenville, died Tuesday. She was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her spine in January 2011, and family friend Marlene Aldama said a surgery to remove the growth was unsuccessful.
Aldama said Ashley lost movement in her right arm and had difficulty walking as a result of the surgery, leaving her to use a wheelchair. She underwent chemotherapy in recent months and only attended a few weeks of school this year.
About two weeks ago, Ashley was rushed to an area hospital with breathing difficulties.
"She got active last summer and she was in school for two weeks this school year, so we thought she was going to get better. We just thought that there was hope," said Aldama, who helped organize a basketball fundraiser for Ashley last month that attracted more than 200 supporters. "But even with everything, she just always had a smile. You would never see her sad or crying."
The community rallied to support Ashley and her family in several ways over the past year, with events like the basketball fundraiser that garnered more than $7,000, and by participating in charity walks like the American Cancer Society's Walk & Roll last year in Elgin.
Family and friends also worked to help the Garzas with daily chores, like caring for their dog or ensuring Ashley's sister, 16-year-old Brianna, got rides to Fenton High School.
Proceeds from the fundraisers helped the Garza family pay mounting medical bills and purchase items like a scooter so Ashley could move around independently.
"She was just beyond herself when she saw how that scooter let her do things on her own," Aldama said. "Just having that little bit of freedom lifted her spirits so much."
But what really lifted Ashley's spirits throughout her young life were her passions. She loved dance, softball and always aimed to get straight A's in her accelerated classes at school. Concha Garza said her daughter was the life of every party, and her hospital room was always full of people. That's why Ashley's dream of becoming a chef was fitting, Garza said, because her daughter often hosted dinner parties.
Ashley was known among friends and family for her impeccable fashion sense. Every day the teen made sure her hair was fixed and her outfits were just right.
"She was the biggest fashionista ever and would always say 'a T-shirt is the lazy way out,'" Garza said.
Officials at Blackhawk Middle School said Ashley's death prompted them to implement a crisis plan, offering counseling and assistance for students and staff. A spokeswoman said more than 80 students visited with counselors and social workers to deal with their grief.
The school also worked with the Garza family to send a letter home with all students notifying parents of the situation and asking parents to talk with their children.
Ashley's sister, Brianna, is especially devastated, their mother said. The two had "the best relationship ever."
"She lost her best friend, her future maid of honor, and Ashley won't be there for her graduation," Garza said. "She was the best sister ever and would always hold her hand even while she was sick. This was Ashley."
A wake for Ashley will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Humes Funeral Home, 320 W. Lake St., Addison. A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Alexis Roman Catholic Church, 400 W. Wood St., Bensenville, and a memorial service will follow at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery, 1400 S. Wolf Road, Hillside.
Helping Hands of the Bensenville Fire Protection District is accepting donations for the Ashley Garza Fund, which will help the family with remaining medical bills. Donations can be mailed to: Itasca Bank & Trust Co., The Ashley Garza Fund, 308 W Irving Park Road, Itasca, IL 60143.