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Gurrie Middle School turns purple to honor Kelli O’Laughlin

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Many of the young volunteers selling items for the Kelli Joy O’Laughlin Memorial Fund at Gurrie Middle School had never met her, but they believed strongly in her cause.

The Lyons Township High School freshman was killed in October 2011 when she surprised an intruder in her Indian Head Park home after school. Kelli’s family established a scholarship fund in her memory, and numerous school and community groups have rallied to hold fundraising events.

Gurrie sponsored its third Pack the Place Purple event, noting Kelli’s favorite color, during girls volleyball games March 6 against neighboring Park Junior High School in LaGrange Park.

“This is all dedicated to Kelli. It’s so important,” said eighth-grader Tajia Fiolka. “My mom knew Kelli, and this is important to me.”

Tajia, sporting purple stripes under her eyes and a lavender T-shirt promoting the event, ordered a slice of cheese pizza before her eighth-grade game. Kelli’s name also was written in purple on one of Tajia’s arms.

“This means a lot to support the family,” she said.

Also wearing purple T-shirts, Brenda and John O’Laughlin climbed Gurrie’s bleachers to watch the games dedicated in their daughter’s memory. Cheers rose during a break in the matches when John O’Laughlin stepped forward with the winning raffle ticket to claim a gift card.

“It’s nice knowing people haven’t forgotten her, especially since Kelli didn’t go to this school,” Brenda O’Laughlin said. “It’s great that kids love getting involved.”

The couple has just received the first bundle of applications for the 2014 scholarships for LT students, more than in previous years, Brenda O’Laughlin said. The fund also has provided awards to students from Hinsdale Central and Fenwick high schools and invites Nazareth Academy students to apply this year as well.

The memorial fund also awards a scholarship to go to a camp Kelli attended and for holiday gifts for kids who otherwise wouldn’t receive them.

Former Gurrie volleyball coach Gale Tlapa retired from teaching in 2012, but has returned the last two years to coordinate the event benefitting Kelli’s memorial fund.

“We had done Pack the Place Pink for breast cancer during basketball games,” Tlapa said. “After the tragedy happened with Kelli, I could tell it really affected the kids.”

So Tlapa proposed a purple event during a volleyball game, and the team, administration and school embraced the idea, she said. Volleyball players collected pledges for serves made and raised more than $2,000 the first year. Sales of T-shirts, raffle tickets, pizza and bracelets totaled about $800 a year ago and more than $800 this year.

“You can just feel the excitement in the building,” she said.

Three Gurrie alumni, now students at LT, returned for the event, and girls sold raffle tickets.

“When this tragedy happened, it affected everyone,” said senior Natalie Ruffner, who met Kelli on the high school’s tennis team.

“Events like this try to take the good out of a difficult circumstance,” Ruffner said. “Everything that is done on Kelli’s behalf is super special.”

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