VISTA — A sudden and tragic loss upended the life of the Chavez family last year.
The family lost 11-year-old Wendy Chavez to an unexpected leukemia diagnosis in June 2018, but months later her legacy lives on, in part, to her younger sister, Tania.
Tania Chavez, 10, is a fifth-grader at the Vista Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. And several weeks ago, she led the way in the school’s annual Pennies for Patients drive, which raises funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Tania used her wits, family network and some help from her two older sisters — Karen, 22, and Laura, 25 — to build a website. And when it came to tally the funds raised, Tania blew away the field with more than $800.
“She was really kind,” she said of her sister. “We used to do videos on our phone or play outside.”
“We had a goal of $3,000 and raised over $5,700,” Principal Benjie Walker added. “She (Tania) spoke in front of the whole school, and it was pretty powerful.”
Wendy was a bright and funny girl who attended the Vista Innovation and Design Academy. But no one knew last June would be her last days as she suddenly became ill.
Her mother, Reina Chavez, was worried so much she admitted Wendy to the emergency room. However, doctors figured the child was dehydrated, but Reina Chavez knew something else was affecting her daughter.
They visited a hospital in Tijuana, where Wendy was diagnosed with leukemia. They were referred to Rady’s Children Hospital, but again the family hit a roadblock with doctors believing the diagnosis.
Finally, tests confirmed what the Mexican doctors already knew. The confirmation came with a tragic twist, Wendy was terminal and had little time left to live.
On June 24, she slipped out of consciousness and hours later, the energetic, charismatic and bubbly girl was gone, just four days after her 11th birthday. Once news spread, the Chavez family was blanketed in support from friends, teachers, school administrators and others, Reina Chavez said through tears.
“They said they were not able to do anything and you have to say goodbye to your daughter,” she said.
“I don’t think she ever knew she had cancer,” Laura Chavez added. “She was so strong.”
So when the fundraiser came around, Tania knew it was an opportunity to honor her older sister, the one she used to play with, look up to and was her best friend.
Marla Minsart, Tania’s teacher, said she was shocked to learn her student raised about 14% of the school’s total funds. After creating the website, Tania called all her family members, friends and other acquaintances to tell them about her website to honor her sister, and they responded in kind.
As a result of her efforts, Tania’s class won first place in the school-wide drive.
Minsart said she is proud of her pupil, but noted how Tania has blossomed and improved throughout the year, even though her sister’s death still weighs on her.
“You are your sister’s hero,” Minsart said of her student. “I just think through the year, she has really blossomed. It was amazing that she would find the opportunity and her moment to shine and for her sister to shine.”
The gravity and levity of Wendy’s passing is not lost on her little sister. Tania said one of the big reasons she worked so hard to raise the money was to help other kids in her sister’s position.
Hopefully, she said, some of the money will lead to earlier diagnoses and those children will avoid the fate of Wendy. Tania, though, speaks with a smile when talks about her sister and role model and the good times.
“They need to diagnose what it is and I think the money will help different people in need,” Tania added.