Vigil honors 7-year-old Lake Wylie girl with brain tumor

jzou@heraldonline.comJanuary 26, 2014 

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— Candles flickered on a quiet street corner of the Forest Oaks community in Lake Wylie as residents walked toward Alvaro Melendez to give their condolences, offer help or remind him they’re just around the corner.

For Melendez, Sunday night’s candlelight vigil honoring the memory of his late daughter was the first time he met several of his neighbors.

The family has spent the last several weeks in and out of Tennessee and North Carolina, searching for treatment options for 7-year-old Kayla Melendez, who had been battling an inoperable brain tumor since she was diagnosed in the fall. Doctors noticed she couldn’t walk in a straight line during a routine checkup.

Kayla died on Jan. 18 of complications from the flu, her father said. She had been undergoing a rough course of chemotherapy at the time that required her to take several medications, he added.

“The last three months were not easy,” Melendez said to the circle of residents that formed around him. “Thank you for everything.”

Tealight candles in white paper bags were placed along the intersection of Settlement Street and Valley Forge Road – just a few yards from the family’s home. Residents held white candles as they sang hymns and recited prayers.

“We felt like we let her down,” said Brandi Rompa, 39, a health office manager who lives two doors down from the Melendez family.

Rompa didn’t know about the family’s struggle until after the news about Kayla’s death. She and another neighbor, Lauren Myers, planned the “impromptu” vigil as a way to pay their respects and rally the community together around the family.

Several of the residents only knew Kayla as another neighborhood child playing on the streets or had children of their own who attended the same school as she did – Crowder’s Creek Elementary School.

“I could never imagine what they’ve been through,” said Rompa.

Melendez said the community’s support touched him because it reminded him of his daughter.

“It’s like having her here with us,” he said. “My daughter has moved a lot of people.”

His 5-year-old nephew, Joseph, stood by his side as he recounted months of frustration and fear to the crowd. Joseph grew up with his cousin, who often made him play with Barbie dolls with her. Kayla’s favorite color was pink, her nickname was Princess, and her favorite princess was Sleeping Beauty.

Waleska Oliveri, 42, was one of the few people in attendance who knew the family well.

“She was a very happy, bubbly, bright little girl,” Oliveri said of Kayla. “We want to show support in the community and be there for one another.”

Oliveri, who is employed with the Clover school district, worked with Kayla in a preschool literacy program called Bright Beginnings until she was 5 years old. Oliveri remembers reading princess-themed stories with Kayla, and learned about the family’s struggle with her condition earlier this year.

Several friends of the family began fundraising and have planned an upcoming 5K walk in Kayla’s honor in Rock Hill’s Ebenezer Park this March. The proceeds from the walk will help with the family’s medical bills, and some will go to St. Jude’s Children Hospital, which supports cancer research.

Kayla’s battle struck a chord with Teresa Clifford, 47, who also is waging a fight against cancer. In recent years, Clifford discovered that her breast cancer had metastasized into her bones, even though she had been in remission for several years.

“It’s sad that it takes this for a community to come together,” said Clifford. She gave a hug to Melendez, and another resident handed him a bouquet of yellow tulips.

“Take one day at a time,” said Clifford. “It’s all we can do.”

Jie Jenny Zou •  803-329-4062

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