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When a family from Oklahoma lost their mom, Williston Northampton students took action

EASTHAMPTON — After two students at The Williston Northampton School lost their mother last July, the campus community sprang into action in the way people do when those they care about are hurting.

Students and faculty organized a fundraiser in honor of the family’s loss, and at their suggestion, donated nearly $1,500 to the Northampton-based VNA & Hospice of Cooley Dickinson.

Vicky Autry, the mother of student Alex Autry, died July 26, 2012, from breast cancer two months after she attended the Williston graduation to watch her son receive his diploma. His sister, Ashleigh Autry, finished her junior year last spring, and decided not to return to Williston for her senior year in order to be closer to home. The family is from Norman, Okla.

But the family’s heartbreak left its mark on the Williston community in many ways.

When Alex had to miss the last three hockey games of his senior year to see his mom, his teammates sported pink on their equipment in recognition. Ashleigh didn’t play on the soccer team, but she had friends on the team who wanted to honor her family even after she left the school.

“Alex and Ashleigh are the strongest people I know,” said senior soccer player Kelly O’Donnell. The family’s strength also made an impression on the team’s coach, Erin Davey, who was Ashleigh’s adviser.

Last fall, Davey, the school’s soccer players and many parents banded together to raise $1,407 through bracelet sales, a bake sale, a raffle and played a game they called “Pink on the Pitch” in memory of Vicki Autry.

Vicki Autry’s husband, Eddie Autry, said the effort seemed typical for a school community that enveloped his children in their struggles.

“I was excited, but it didn’t surprise me, because that is just the way they are at Williston, so generous,” he said.

Over the four years that Alex was a student and the two years that Ashleigh was there, the community rallied to support the family.

Vickie and Eddie Autry became close with Linda Mindland after striking up a conversation with her as she was managing the school store.

“Whatever they needed, we were there for them,” said Mindland. Speaking about Vicki Autry, Mindland said: “Her life was her family, her kids, her community, her church — she had a beautiful presence.”

The support continued after she died, and Alex graduated, and Ashleigh left to go to school closer to her home.

“For me, it was a really nice opportunity to celebrate the Autrys,” said Pam Simpson, a parent who helped run the fundraiser. As the project commenced, it became clear that a lot of people would agree.

Even parents whose children played for other sports baked for the sale. At end of the bake sale, one woman walked up and gave about $100 to buy the remaining baked goods. O’Donnell remembers how within two minutes of sending out an email about the fundraiser, she received responses from people asking how they could help.

While the team had much support, Simpson stressed that it was the players who took the lead. She said it was most rewarding to see that her efforts were secondary as a mom, because the girls had gained the skills necessary to do the event.

“Everyone was able to do their best, because we really believed in what we were honoring,” said team captain Karly Simpson, who is Pam Simpson’s daughter.

The Oct. 27 game against Suffield Academy drew about 80 people and The Williston Northampton School girls won 6-1.

“From the first whistle, we were starting off with fire,” Karly said. Alex Autry attended the game, coming back to Easthampton from his college in Geneva, N.Y. At the end of the game, the team all ran to embrace him.

After the fundraiser, Davey asked Eddie Autry where he would like to donate the money. “We brought hospice in for my wife the last three weeks of her life,” he said. “I told her that it would be best to do something local, rather than national, where the funds will go to people that need it.”

In the end Davey decided to donate the money to the VNA & Hospice of Cooley Dickinson in Northampton.

“I am just so thrilled to be donating this money to a local hospice, the family was just so wonderful in choosing a local place, I think that’s the coolest part in all of this,” she said.

Priscilla Ross, director of development at the VNA & Hospice of Cooley Dickinson, described how great it was to receive the phone call about the donation. She said she admires the team members for working so hard to support an organization that gives end-of-life services because it is such a difficult topic for people to approach.

“It will have an impact on these girls forever, they will carry it with them, they will be aware,” she said. Ross says the donation shows the impact that hospice services had on the Autry family, and that they recognize the universal benefits of the program. Ross said donations like the one from Williston allow the hospice services to be offered to all in need — and to continue programs like one that brings therapeutic harpists to patients.

“It is incredible — it just shows that people care, to go out of their way to do something for someone else,” said Eddie Autry. As for his wife, he said, “she would be thrilled, she was very proud of Ms. Davey and all the faculty that interacted with her kids, she was just very appreciative.”

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