A top student and athlete with a loving family and lots of good friends, Gina Giancola should be celebrating her graduation Sunday from Hersey High School with plenty of options for the future.
Instead, those who love her are putting final touches on Gina's Gallop, a festive day of running events and family activities June 8 at Arlington International Racecourse to raise funds and awareness to fight the depression and suicide that killed the Arlington Heights girl at age 15.
"Eleven months before she died, she said, 'I don't feel right. I think it's depression,'" remembers her mom, Julianne Giancola. "We were floored. You would never know."
Pretty and popular, Gina was an outgoing kid who lit up the room and was friends with kids who didn't have those advantages. "She reached out to people who were isolated," says her father, Mark Giancola. She made things fun for others.
"She really was just this amazing kid," says Lil Bailey, whose daughter Erin played soccer with Gina for years on Sockers FC out of Palatine. The Hawthorn Woods mom remembers Erin scoring a goal to win a soccer championship when Gina, combining her gymnastic and soccer talents, performing one of her acrobatic flips to make a perfect throw-in.
Gina and her older sisters, Domenica and Giovanna, were buddies and made sure their dogs, Goldendoodles Ginger and Lucy, joined in the fun. A favorite family photo of Gina wearing a swimsuit and great smile practically jumps out of the frame with her zest for life.
That was life for the Giancola family until depression, as if it were a cancerous tumor, showed up one day and changed everything for Gina.
"I think she was scared. She didn't understand it. We were all in shock," her mom says. "She wasn't your troubled kid. She wasn't on drugs. She wasn't a loner."
The attention given to the baby of the family suddenly focused on a fight to save her life. "It just got shifted from soccer and gymnastics and going to the pool, to going to the doctors," her dad remembers.
"The doctors were literally scratching their heads," says Julianne Giancola, recalling how Gina would try a new medication, wait to see if it worked, and then try a new medication in search of one that would help. "We didn't have time to find that out."
A sophomore at Hersey, Gina continued to do her homework, fix her hair and work on getting healthy again.
"Whatever they said to do, she'd do it. She struggled to stay alive as long as she could. She said, 'I don't want to leave you. I don't want you to be sad,'" her mom remembers.
"We did everything we possibly could," Giovanna says. "We tried our hardest."
Gina ate a bowl of her mom's chili and walked the dogs on the night of Oct. 22, 2011, when she killed herself on her first attempt at suicide. Her soccer teammates got the news while playing in St. Louis.
"The girls were wailing," remembers Hal Gierman, whose daughter, Lauren, was a teammate, good friend and had a locker next to Gina at school. "All the parents were just beside ourselves. We didn't understand it at all."
Coping with the stunning loss, the girls, parents and others who knew Gina "wanted to do something to remember Gina," says Gierman, whose wife, Jean, joined Bailey and others to create Gina's Gallop.
Now in its third year, the event, which features a 5K run, a 3K walk, a 100-yard dash for kids and a festival of food, music and games, is moving to Arlington International Racecourse. Money raised by the not-for-profit Gina Giancola SAFE Foundation and Gina's Gallop will provide $6,000 in scholarship awards for students who help others and support the charities Erika's Lighthouse and the Catholic Charities LOSS program.
"I loved the kid," says Tony Petrillo, general manager of the racecourse and a longtime friend of the Giancola family. His daughter, Maria, played soccer with Gina and the pair were good friends.
In addition to races featuring hundreds of runners, the racecourse will sport live music and a DJ, games, pony rides, a petting zoo and other entertainment. Those who register by Sunday at Ginasgallop.eventbrite.com or through the Arlington International website at arlingtonpark.com will receive a free shirt and a ticket for a free beverage.
Seeing the simple way to remember a beloved girl grow into a big-time event at Arlington International Racecourse "is so Gina," says her mom. While noting the event is "a cruel reminder of why we have to be there," Julianne and Mark Giancola say they can't begin to thank all of the people who have worked to do good while remembering their daughter.
In addition to including the 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) hotline on all the Gina's Gallop literature, organizers say conversations lead to better treatment and an erosion of the stigma associated with mental health issues.
"If it could happen to Gina," Julianne Giancola says, "I don't know who's safe."