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Students rally over loss of classmate

Selena Vasquez's family gather around a candle lit in her memory on Friday at the start of the lyceum held in the BOLD Elementary Gymnasium in Bird Island. From left are Selena's mother, Cristina; her aunt, Maria DeClerq; sisters Daisy, Jackie, Ivette and Belinda; cousin, Brianna DeClerq; and father, Ramiro, back. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

BIRD ISLAND -- To her friends and classmates in sixth grade, Selena Vasquez was fun-loving and full of zest.

"Great fun,'' said BOLD sixth-grader Noelia Lopez.

Or, as BOLD elementary principal Kip Lynk put it: "She was spirited. She would tell you what she thought. Sassy, in a good kind of way.''

Selena was remembered for all of these attributes on Friday afternoon in Bird Island, just days after the 12-year-old's death.

"I can't really accept it," said Lopez.

"It really shocked us,'' said Autumn Bloomquist, a sixth-grade friend.

Elementary students from the BOLD, St. Mary's, Renville County West and Buffalo Lake-Hector sch-ools filled the school gymnasium with a spirit befitting a tournament basketball game. The Tim Orth Memorial Foundation event was to have been part of the fundraising effort to help Selena Vasquez's family with the medical expenses incurred as she battled leukemia.

It became a memorial as well, as Selena's parents and sisters joined to light a candle for her.

Selena was diagnosed with leukemia in January, and was waiting to have a bone marrow transplant.

Parents Cristina and Ramiro Vasquez of Danube said doctors were initially optimistic for her recovery. They were too.

She loved "girly'' things befitting a girl her age, said her mother. But Selena was also someone who could stand up for herself, she added.

Selena had taken a fall in mid-February, and that seems to have set her on a downward course. She fractured some vertebra, and was being cared for at the Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. Her parents said the chemotherapy, an infection and pneumonia seemed to have had a cascading effect on their daughter's health.

She marked her 12th birthday on Sunday in the hospital.

She died the next day.

"It's tough for now,'' said Cristina. Selena's four sisters and other family members have taken her loss very hard, said the parents.

The support shown by the school and her daughter's friends and classmates have helped the family immensely, they added.

The Tim Orth Memorial Foundation for 15 years has been raising funds to help families who have children facing catastrophic medical challenges. This is the first time that a recipient has died before the fundraising could be completed, but it won't stop the effort, according to Val Serbus of the Foundation. The Vasquez family has incurred lots of out-of-pocket expenses associated with their daughter's care, she noted.

Students in the BOLD schools have also been fundraising to help the family. Principal Lynk said the sixth-graders are a very tight-knit group, and are handling their classmate's death in a positive way.

A representative from the Children's Hospital came to the BOLD Elementary school this week and took the sixth-graders on Selena's journey with leukemia, telling the students about the disease and treatment, he said.

After learning of their classmate's diagnosis, the students had organized a T-shirt fundraising effort on behalf of the family. They designed bright orange T-shirts with the slogan: "Selena We're here 4U.'' The first shipment of T-shirts arrived on Monday, the same day as news of their classmates death reached them.

Lynk said the students are creating a plaque that will hold photos of their late friend and classmate. It will stay with them in the years ahead. "They want to carry Selena with them all the way through their school lives,'' he said.

Lynk said the Tim Orth event on Friday, which featured a basketball game, sports team mascots and lots of fun, was exactly what was needed. "Selena would want us to be happy,'' he explained.

The annual Tim Orth Memorial Benefit "Jam the Gym'' event will be held tonight in the Bird Island gymnasium.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335