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A Medford family is trying to create their own light this holiday season while grieving the devastating loss of an oldest daughter who passed away during the holiday season last year.
Aubrey Schmidt was a 12-year-old student at Hedrick Middle School who loved soccer, had a surprising knack for cooking elaborate meals, obsessed over chemistry and loved to sing. When she took her own life Dec. 12 last year, the family was left blindsided and heartbroken.
Aubrey’s mother, Ashley Alvarez, remembers intricate details of those final days of her daughter’s life more clearly than any of the days and weeks that have blurred together since — how well she loved her siblings, eye rolls at family photos in ugly Christmas sweaters and her joy for helping others during the holidays.
Losing her bright 12-year-old was unfathomable and not something the mother of six ever expected.
“She kind of hit puberty early, and all these mental health issues came on and hit so fast. We just don’t know what happened,” Alvarez said, tearing up while talking about her firstborn.
“She had plans for the next day — she was supposed to be going to her gramma’s house to make cookies — and we found her in her room.”
Left with painful questions and vivid memories of the girl who her siblings and friends remember as the kindest of humans, the family is paying tribute this year by doing the kind of good deeds and kind gestures the preteen was especially known for.
A huge fan of helping others year-round, but especially at Christmas, the seventh grader had made it a Christmas tradition since she was a toddler to buy gifts from the “gift tag” trees put around the Rogue Valley by social service organizations like CASA and the Salvation Army.
“We’ve been doing the tree tags since she was a really small. I was a single mom for a long time until I ended up with my husband a couple years ago. We didn’t have a ton of money back then, but we felt like we had enough to share with people who had less than we did, and we loved doing the tree tags,” Alvarez said.
“Aubrey would pick out the tags, and she’d pick the presents and we’d go drop the gifts off together. She would always talk about those kids and wonder about them. Last year, we did a bunch of tags like always, and we had gone back out again because she really wanted to do one last one.”
One more gift for a 2-year-old — the same age as Aubrey when she chose her first tree tag a decade before her death.
“The last one she did was for a little 2-year-old girl who needed clothes and bedding. It was a little bed-in-a-bag kind of set with flowers and butterflies — Aubrey loved butterflies,” Alvarez said, wiping away tears while telling stories of her daughter.
“I think about that freaking bed-in-a-bag sitting at the bottom of my stairs all the time. When the medical examiner came the day that we found her … it was just sitting at the bottom of the stairs, and we had to move it out of the way for them to bring her body down. I remember they asked us if there was anything they could do for us, and all I could think of was that she wanted the little girl to have her gift. I said, ‘Could you take these gifts to the mall?’”
Alvarez said the appearance of the gift tag trees this year prompted her to try and turn some of her family’s grief into some goodwill for the holidays.
“Christmas is hard. I do hate it, especially now, but kids shouldn’t ever feel that way. And Aubrey would want us to do something to help others. Our hope is to help make Christmas happen for some of these families,” she said.
“We just decided to try and make something better out of it all.”
To that end, Alvarez launched a GoFundMe and collected donations to the tune of more than — so far — $6,200, helping more than five-dozen families and individuals. They started with Salvation Army trees, for which the gift delivery deadline passed last week, then moved on to tree tags distributed by Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
Additionally, they’ve helped ease holiday stress for community members whose stories they found on social media or in the local news.
“We started this little fundraiser to raise maybe 500 bucks to help a few kids, and ended up making over $6,000 and getting presents for more than 30 or 40 kids,” Alvarez added.
“We’ve dropped off Crockpots for single moms who don’t have another way to cook, blankets for people living in the parks, movie tickets for a family who couldn’t afford to do anything for Christmas. … We were going to cut it off a few weeks ago, but we still have money coming in, and so we’re still taking stuff to people.”
CASA Executive Director Jennifer Mylenek, after surveying a pile of toys dropped off Thursday, was touched by the kindness of Aubrey’s siblings — three brothers and two sisters — and parents in the face of their own sorrow.
“Our focus is to advocate for abused and neglected children’s best interest, and we work with difficult situations every day, but there can be no greater tragedy than to lose a child,” said Mylenek.
“Our hearts go out to this family, and we hope to be able to honor Aubrey and her family by ensuring more children experience the magic of the holidays through these gifts.”
A small amount of healing for Aubrey’s five siblings, the youngest of whom was 2 months old when Aubrey died, is that bringing some happiness, courtesy of their big sister, will provide some comfort this holiday season.
Alvarez said she’ll always look for signs from her daughter in the tree tags on Christmas trees, the smiles from those they’ve helped and in the little notes and photos and other memories she holds dear. A stack of paper notes — from a fifth-grade writing project where classmates wrote to one another — contains 32 notes that all spoke of Aubrey’s kindness and her compassion and of how she was a great friend.
Alvarez said she hopes her family’s efforts will make children and families in need feel a little love and warmth during what can often be a tough time of year.
“When we decided to do the tree tags, we were planning to have a cutoff, but money kept coming in, and we still keep finding need. We just decided that whatever money we have come in, we are very easily finding people who need help this time of year,” she said.
Trying to do justice to her first-born, who “at 12, was already more compassionate than any adult” she’d ever known, Alvarez hopes Aubrey, who would have turned 13 in June, would be proud of her legacy.
“She was just a cool kid. There’s a lot of stuff we could’ve done in honor of her, but I don’t think it would’ve done justice if we weren’t helping other kids,” said the mom.
“All throughout this, when we talk about all the gifts we’re buying, we always talk about them being ‘for Aubrey’s kids.’”
To donate to Aubrey’s kids, see the GoFundMe campaign at gofundme.com/f/honoring-aubrey-this-christmas?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=unknown&utm_campaign=comms_hshf+honoring-aubrey-this-christmas
Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.
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