By Mike Pearson, with files from Diana Zlomislic, Torstar News
Classmates wore bright spring colours and rainbow hair extensions to honour Maia Santarelli-Gallo, a 12-year old Stoney Creek girl who died suddenly after a March Break outing with her family.
More than 500 attended Maia’s funeral service at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church on Monday.
Maia, a Grade 7 student at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School, is believed to have succumbed to an unknown food allergy after a trip to Mapleview Mall in Burlington last week. Results of an autopsy will determine her cause of death.
While on route to an aunt’s funeral recently, Maia told her mother, Leah Santarelli and sister, Zoe, 14, she didn’t want anyone wearing black at her own funeral.
“I want to put the ‘fun’ in funeral,” Maia’s family recalled her saying.
Along with traditional Roman Catholic gifts of bread, water and wine, Maia’s friends carried a banner, a football and soccer ball for their classmate. A single rainbow coloured butterfly balloon hovered above the mourners.
In an interview with Torstar News, Maia was remembered by her mother as a “fearless ball of fire” who both played football and dreamed “top model” dreams. She was equal parts tomboy and girly girl.
A twitter feed @coloursformaia has been created in her memory. Several tweets bearing the hashtag were directed to Maia’s favourite recording artists Justin Bieber and Harry Styles of One Direction.
Rev. Martin Vallely, who presided over the funeral, said Maia’s passing is a time for renewed Christian faith.
“I know right now there are far more questions than answers. The questions will be dealt with on another day….This is an invitation to faith, not to despair…. (Maia) wants you to be deepened in your faith.”
Rev. Vallely closed the service by stating, “(Maia) will live forever in the sight of our God and we will live as bearers of the light.”
Jackie Bajus, superintendent for Our Lady of Peace, said the school board’s crisis response team will be at the school this week on a day-to-day basis, depending upon the response of students. The response team was also available during funeral visitation hours and includes three social workers.
“We’ve got some work to do to help them get through the grieving process,” she said.
Schools throughout the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board lowered their flags to half mast in tribute to Maia.
Maia was with Zoe and their father, Vincent Gallo, last Wednesday, March 13, for a bit of leisurely March Break shopping at Mapleview Mall. Maia and Zoe were supposed to return to their mom’s home that night and later go roller skating.
Santarelli arrived at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington at the same time as the ambulance carrying Maia.
She and Gallo were invited into the room where staff performed chest compressions, trying to bring her non-responsive body back to life.
“We were only allowed to be down by her feet but I was grabbing for her hand,” Santarelli said. “My heart had that hope, please come back, please come back, you’re a fighter.”
She figures 20 minutes passed before staff called time of death.
Santarelli climbed on the gurney. “I just laid there with her.”
Santarelli says she doesn’t blame anyone.
“Is it something that could have been prevented? Possibly. Is it something that was meant to be? Possibly.”
For now, her death is still too much of a mystery to start pointing fingers.
Maia loved food and lived by the motto that “meat is good for society.” Santarelli says Maia had some intolerances but nothing was pinpointed, and doctors never prescribed an EpiPen — and she had eaten ice cream at the mall two weeks earlier without any problems.
To honour Maia the family has requested that the public consider organ and tissue donations through Trillium Gift of Life of memorial contributions to McMaster Children’s Hospital.