Dear Mrs. Willen,
My name is Max Strotbeck. I created the banner that said “For Ally” on it and was holding the banner with a friend in the picture that was displayed at her remembrance ceremony. When I posted that picture online, I wrote a caption for it that ended with “Live like Ally” which seems to have caught on quite well. I’ve been meaning to email you for awhile now to express my condolences but have had trouble finding what to say, but just now I thought you may like to hear how this all came about:
I was in Queenstown on a weekend trip organized by ISA (the program we studied abroad through) when I was told the news about Ally’s missing. I was distraught. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know Ally and had meaningful conversations with her. I would run into her on campus and she was always telling me about the trip she went on last weekend and what she already planned for the next weekend. She was the first person I was jealous of here, because she got a car maybe not even a week after being in Dunedin and was off exploring already. We were like minded (both experienced travelers, vegan, want careers involving helping others) and she was someone I wish I had got to know better, but when you’re off exploring every weekend that can be difficult. I remember reading her letters online with her penpal in prison, and it just further solidified her uniqueness. No wonder I was intrigued, who wouldn’t be. Anyway, as an avid hiker myself, I knew how grave her situation could be. The Monday morning after arriving back in Dunedin from the Queenstown trip, I called landSAR (search and rescue in New Zealand) hoping to be able to volunteer in the search mission. I was told that they were not asking for volunteers, and if anything changed they would let me know. It was not only me that wanted to help, but friends of mine as well, people that also knew Ally. We felt helpless being in Dunedin when we wanted to do more, and honestly I felt guilty for it. I called LandSAR twice more that week, but their answer was the same. They only wanted their trained personnel to do the search because having volunteers could pose a potential hazard, especially if a volunteer went missing. This was logical and it makes sense, but I still felt helpless, guilty, and agitated. I couldn’t sit around and do nothing.
For a couple weeks, my buddy and I had wanted to climb a peak called Single Cone in Queenstown, the highest peak in Queenstown. We planned to do it the Friday after Ally went missing. However, if I was going to do this, it had to be for more than just the fact of doing it. We still had hope for Ally, and if I wasn’t able to help in the search and rescue, I had to do something. I called a screen printing shop in Dunedin 6 hours before my friend (Duncan) and I were going to drive to Queenstown. I asked them if they could make a banner on such short notice. Of course they said no, but then I explained the situation and they agreed to help out (very thankful for that). It was completed just three hours later, and it read “FOR ALLY”. We left Thursday afternoon and did the climb on Friday (in absolutely perfect weather). We didn’t get back from the trip until Sunday night, as we went on another hike afterward, and I got the call that night about the news of Ally being found. Right after, I posted the picture of us holding the banner on facebook on Ally’s wall.
Before I continue, I want to tell you a bit about myself that may give you some context as to why I did this. First, I think every person has the capacity to do “this” in them. I put “this” in quotation marks because I don’t know how to explain it. In this circumstance, “this” means creating a banner for Ally. Maybe it is compassion, or empathy. Everyone has “this” inside them, but it may take some trigger, some significant event or life experience, to bring it to the surface. My brother, who was 16 months older than me, died of brain cancer when he was 13. This happened at an odd stage of my life. I have since realized that I was too young to really understand in entirety what happened at the time and I was shaped around this event throughout my teenage years, and it still continues to shape who I am now. My parents were hurting, really suffering, and I had trouble seeing this when I was so young. We who suffer great loss tend to show great understanding of another’s loss, and have more active responses in turn. My point being that as many letters and acts of kindness you have received, there were even more people that liked Ally and cared about her than you ever could have imagined that you haven’t heard from.
The caption for the picture reads, “explore, climb, hike, and live for Ally. Seize the day and the remarkable moments they bring, and always live in the present. Live like Ally. Carpe Diem.” As I told Todd and Brad, I wanted to make this banner and take this picture to bring a moment of happiness to you and your family in such a hard time, even if for just a moment. When my brother passed, my parents and I received much support, as I am sure your family has as well. I was compelled to support you and your family in some way. I thought this would help. I know my gesture in reality means not much at all because it didn’t save Ally. So, I guess that I’m just thankful, as Todd told me, that you have something “to grab a hold on” to now, being the picture and the phrase “Live like Ally”. It’s a great motto to live by, and one that we should all embrace. I am truly sorry for the passing of your daughter. We, because I think I speak for all who knew Ally in New Zealand, wish we could have done more.