From Tragedy, Rebirth
This was written as a blog by Cassidy from Cross Cultural Solutions (with some minor editing), an organization that Live Like Ally partnered with to send young adults on life-changing international service trips.
Accidents happen every day—tragedies we cannot explain, nor control. But we are not powerless: we get to choose how we respond to the Universe. We can clench our fists and rage against the void, or—what perhaps takes more strength—we can slowly release our grip, one finger at a time, and open our palms, where a butterfly might land.
This is the story of how a family has embraced unspeakable pain and decided to share their daughter’s compassionate spirit with the world.
It was a beautiful morning on April 25, 2015 when Ally Willen and her two roommates were hiking the Gillespie Pass in Mount Aspiring National Park. Ally was studying abroad in New Zealand and had fallen in love with the country’s breathtaking landscapes, from the Redwood Forest near Rotorua to the glaciers in Fiordland National Park.
Nature frequently reminds us of her unyielding power: at once beautiful—the next moment, terrible. That afternoon, a storm hit: 70 mph winds and torrential hail separated Ally from the other girls. Once authorities were informed that Ally was missing, twenty specialist teams set out to find her. On May 2, a rescue team found Ally’s body; they determined she had been swept away by the Young River.
Before they even returned to the US with Ally’s body, Michelle and Todd Willen knew that they wanted to carry on Ally’s legacy.
“We thought, ‘We’ve got to give back…We felt compelled to do something,’” Michelle said.
The Willens were soon surprised with a source of inspiration. In honor of Ally, her friend Max Strotbeck decided to set out with a friend to attempt the most difficult climb of his life, the Single Cone in Queenstown. When they reached the top, Max took a photo with a sign saying, “For Ally.” In his Facebook post, he wrote: “Live like Ally.”
The phrase went viral as people shared how moved they were by this young woman. Michelle says at least 500 people came to Ally’s funeral, even those who didn’t know her.
According to Todd, “I had people come up to me saying, ‘I feel like I know your daughter,’ over and over again.”
Within a month of their daughter’s passing, the Willens decided to start the Live Like Ally Foundation. For the first two years, Live Like Ally helped provide travel scholarships for young people like Ally who wanted to make the world a better place. When this initiative ended, 80 young adults could thank the Willens for their life-changing journey. Many still maintain relationships with Todd and Michelle. “It is the only thing that feels good. I cry every time I talk to the kids. Each one has given me a sliver of Ally back…I still cry I don’t know how many times a day, but by doing this, maybe it will create a ripple effect—maybe this could be something big. It doesn’t have to be, but I hope each kid influences even more kids.”