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Friday, 23 October 2015 10:24

Seventh-grader's spirit lives on in Delavan community

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Heidi Perry, Lilly Perry’s mom, shows the paper quilt made by Lilly’s classmates at Phoenix Middle School in Delavan after Lilly died of an asthma attack last December. Lilly had a way of connecting with everyone she met, her mom said, so it’s not surprising that Lilly has had a lasting influence on school and community. Heidi Perry, Lilly Perry’s mom, shows the paper quilt made by Lilly’s classmates at Phoenix Middle School in Delavan after Lilly died of an asthma attack last December. Lilly had a way of connecting with everyone she met, her mom said, so it’s not surprising that Lilly has had a lasting influence on school and community. Terry Mayer

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The seventh-grade Phoenix Middle School girl who suited up for the Jr. Comets team at youth football games and stood up to bullies on the playground is still remembered here, even though she’s been gone for 10 months.

In her too-short life, Lilly Perry touched a lot of people.

She still does.

“Everybody knew Lilly,” Heidi Perry said of her daughter. “She was the ball girl at the varsity games. She was everywhere. And it wasn’t just the sports kids, it was the quiet kids. It was the bookworm kids. She found a way to connect with everyone.”

Lilly died of a severe asthma attack Dec. 9, 2014.

It isn’t surprising to see people support each other when a 12-year-old dies. But with Lilly, the support ran deep.

Hours after news of her death spread, photos and posts offering condolences popped up on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Heidi Perry said some 3,000 people attended a memorial service held at the school last year.

A GoFundMe page raised more than $11,800 to help the Perry family handle funeral expenses. Donors included youth football programs from around southern Wisconsin, in honor of Lilly’s participation in the program at Phoenix for three years. Other fundraisers came from local businesses, like Hernandez El Sarape Restaurante.

An alumni golf fundraiser for Delavan-Darien student youth football this summer donated some of the event’s proceeds to juvenile asthma research.

“On churches here you would see on their signs, ‘Live like Lilly’ or ‘Thank you, Lilly.’ It was amazing to see that,” said Laura Prado, an English language learner teacher at Phoenix.

“The community support blew me away. I could not believe it,” Heidi Perry said. “As a parent, you try to instill values in your kids, but it was an honor for me as a mom to see that.”

“I think it connected our community in a way they’ve never done before,” said Steven Fouts, a Phoenix math teacher.

Fouts got to know Lilly as a student in his class, but it was only after she died that he heard stories from her youth football coaches about what a fearless player she was.

“She was so far greater in terms of her impact than any one group knew,” Fouts said. “Everybody who was in any way connected with Lilly, we found each other, and when we did, we all had the same stories, the same feelings. We had a common thread and she was that common thread. We just didn’t know it until she was gone.”

The day Lilly died was numbing for Phoenix teachers and students. Regular academics were suspended. Counselors were called in. Students gathered in the library to talk.

Eighth-grader Jacob Prado, Laura Prado’s son, had known Lilly since sixth grade. The two had lockers next to each other, were in most of the same classes, sat near each other when teachers arranged seats alphabetically. They also spent a lot of time hanging out together after school.

Jacob Prado remembered avoiding the library that day.

“Everybody was just talking and I didn’t want to be in there,” he said. “I wanted to be alone.”

He ended up creating a website about Lilly, posting photos and allowing students to leave comments.

At Phoenix, a school with a student body of nearly 500, the kids who made a huge paper quilt composed of squares where they wrote memories of Lilly continue to talk and think about her.

“She taught me to stand up and become my own person,” said Alyssa Cardenas, an eighth-grader at Phoenix. “I miss everything about her --from personality to her laugh, to her being amazing at every sport.”

On Dec. 9, the school lunch menu will feature Lilly’s favorite foods, including French bread pizza, chicken strips and most likely something chocolate.

A school dance was dedicated to Lilly. So was a Jr. Comets’ home game last month. Players sported socks with Lilly’s favorite colors --  lime green and purple. On the back of their helmets was stenciled a lime green ribbon with the number “2,” Lilly’s number, which has been retired. 

Dave Henriott, who’s been involved in the local youth football organization for 20 years, said more girls have joined the team since Lilly’s passing.

“I don’t want to call her a tomboy, but Lilly was an all-around athlete, constantly on the go and active,” he said. “She was tough and quick and didn’t mind mixing it up with the boys at all. Lilly’s attitude to her fellow players was, ‘I’m putting on the pads just like you. We’re not playing patty-cake.’”

Still, if Lilly could fiercely tackle a player, she also would help him up afterward. 

Laura Prado said Lilly often looked for the student who was sitting alone, who was being bullied or having a tough time.

In April, Phoenix students created a program called Living Like Lilly awards. An anonymous group of students weekly chooses someone who exhibits Lilly’s best traits: polite, respectful, showing good sportsmanship, working well with others, being inclusive.

Those students are recognized by the school with decorated lockers and their names and photos are posted on the program’s website, which is interspersed with pages of Lilly’s journal entries.

“We can’t go back and thank Lilly, but we can thank the people who are still here,” Fouts said. “Her loss was kind of a wakeup call, reminding us we’ve got other fantastic people here. Let’s recognize them and let them know we appreciate what they do.

“For all of us, this is our way of coping with the idea that we had something very precious. We knew it was precious, but we didn’t know just how precious it was. And we look back in hindsight and say, ‘We’re not going to do that again.’”

“In 12 short years, she made a difference,” Heidi Perry said. “She fulfilled her purpose here.”

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