'Amanda's Army' climbing to the top of office tower in memory of young mom
Amanda Gillette had many friends.
As the years passed, she kept in touch with her grade school classmates and neighborhood pals. She made time for her book club and church group, work friends and workout buddies.
She was warm, energetic and welcoming, the glue that held together a wide social circle.
"She was so open that she was able to hold onto so many people," her Batavia High School classmate Heather Kastor said.
So when Gillette, a 39-year-old mom of a young daughter, got a brutal diagnosis -- Stage 3 lung cancer -- she opened up to her friends about her fear and her shock.
"I know she just kept saying, 'I'm going to fight this for my baby girl,'" Kastor said.
Family and friends decided to rally around the Hinckley woman with a secret plot. They planned to form "Amanda's Army," order purple T-shirts (the redhead's favorite color) and take pictures of themselves for a scrapbook to help her through her cancer treatment.
But Gillette never started treatment and she never found out about Amanda's Army.
Just 2½ weeks after her diagnosis, she suffered a massive stroke. She died days later on Dec. 20, 2018.
Her friends, who might not have known each other without Gillette, stayed close.
To help with their grief, they revived Amanda's Army, but this time as a team in the "Fight for Air Climb," one of the largest fundraisers for the American Lung Association.
For the second year, Amanda's Army will scale 31 floors, or 680 stairs, up the Oakbrook Terrace Tower Saturday to support lung cancer research.
The small but mighty army has a new member who will climb with them: Gillette's 4-year-old daughter, Madison.
In honoring her mom, the group is sharing lessons Gillette would have instilled in her daughter about the joy of friendship.
"The mix of the people on the team is exactly what the team would look like if she were still around: handfuls of people from each group coming back together on account of Amanda," team captain Dawn Nelson said. "She's still bringing people together, a gift that not everybody has."
As her obituary says, Gillette liked activities that brought people together.
In 2012, Gillette and Nelson, who met in junior high and reconnected as adults, started a book club and committed to meeting on the last Monday of every month at the former Blackberry Inn in Elburn.
Gillette enjoyed Kristin Hannah books, the "sad and sappy" kind, Kastor said.
She shared her music recommendations and other musings in lengthy emails. She would speak in a loud voice, play music at a loud volume and type notes in all caps.
"You can just hear her even though you're reading her words on the page," Nelson said. "It's like, 'I see her. I can visualize her saying all of this right now.'"
For Gillette, a social butterfly, it wasn't weird to invite friends to family weddings, regardless of whether they were close to her family or not. "Just come if you can," she would say.
Batavia's Class of 1997 celebrated a well-attended 20th high school reunion thanks to Gillette.
"She put her heart and soul into getting our whole class together for this reunion, and she did amazing," said Kastor, who lives in Geneva.
Gillette, who worked for an Aurora construction company, also gathered friends for causes dear to heart. Each year, she would support domestic violence victims by attending the Mutual Ground Walk for Hope in memory of her Batavia classmate, Andrea Will, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1998.
"We did a lot of events together in the past for other people, and so this is our turn to give back to her," Kastor said.
'A ray of sunshine'
After her death, Gillette's book club started back up and read a Kristin Hannah novel, "The Great Alone."
"It was really hard," Kastor said, but it's what Gillette would have wanted.
A club member, Emily Page Hinton, learned about the American Lung Association fundraiser. Nelson decided to start a team.
"There was just a few of us that decided to do it, just to keep a positive spin on all the negative thoughts and just get us through supporting and trying to keep Amanda's spirit alive," Kastor said.
Last year, the nine-person Amanda's Army raised $4,887, the highest total of all the friends and family teams taking on the "Fight for Air Climb." The DJ on the first floor reminded all of them how Gillette would have been dancing and "pumped up for an event like this," Kastor said.
On Saturday, there will be a dozen team members in purple shirts starting their climb at 9:15 a.m.
They hope to keep climbing with Madison year after year, so as she grows up, she knows her mom was well-loved, stayed true to herself and cherished her friends.
"There's just so much to say about her mom, just how she was a loving spirit," Kastor said. "She's my ray of sunshine."
If you goWhat: "Fight for Air Climb"
When: Staggered starts beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 8
Where: Oakbrook Terrace Tower, 1 Tower Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Fee: $55 registration fee on the day of the event, plus $100 minimum fundraising
Info: (312) 781-1100 or FightForAirClimb.org