Hundreds of students and community members joined the grieving family of 17-year-old Nina Poeta to "light the night up with her spirit" Wednesday in memory of the Seymour High School junior who lost her brave battle with brain cancer.
"Her story and her spirit, and her battle against cancer that she had, was really inspirational to a lot of people, and it touched a lot of people," said school security director Rich Kearns.
Poeta died over the weekend following a year-long fight. The cheerleader and prom queen was wheelchair bound by the end, but those who knew her said the illness never broke her spirit.
In fact, even after her diagnosis, Poeta went on to help the Seymour cheerleading team clinch the state championship.
Her condition continued to deteriorate until Poeta eventually lost her ability to speak, but that didn't stop her from showing support at the football games, wheelchair and all.
"We got to watch the crowd chant, 'We love Nina,' and a big smile from ear to ear came across her face," explained cheerleading coach Jessica Young. "Maybe she couldn't tell us she was happy, but you could see it in her face."
Mourners at Wednesday night's "Walk of Light Vigil" flicked on flashlights and pulled out glow sticks when the sun went down, taking ceremonious laps around the high school track. A bagpipe played over a moment of silence.
Fellow cheerleaders showed off handmade bracelets emblazoned with "J8," representing the group of eight friends who lost one of their own during their junior year.
"They would toss her up in the air and she was always dependent upon the people at the base to catch her," said said Seymour High School Principal Jim Freund. "We all realized we became dependent upon her."
Students constructed a memorial for Poeta, where community members left photos and flowers, and wore shirts emblazoned with the phrase, "Keep Clam and Nina Strong," to raise money and awareness in Poeta's memory.
"She actually brought the entire town of Seymour together. She fought so hard for everything," said classmate Hope Lanzieri.
The Seymour superintendent spoke alongside the high school principal, calling up fond memories of the fallen teen and extending their support to Poeta's heartbroken family.
"She was popular. She was very smart. Always in the top of her class, quite an athlete," Freund described. "It's really a sad thing that happened to her. She was exceptional."
Her funeral is set for Friday.