Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A True Champion For Grace

Just days before she passed away, Alexis shared a quote on her Facebook page, "I don't know how my story will end, but nowhere in my text will it ever read, I gave up." And I can't think of any better words to remember Alexis Ann Wernsing.
Alexis came to see Grace at the Raymond 5K event this summer. She brought a University of Illinois hat for her to wear, and I begrudingly agreed. Alexis could always talk me into almost anything. She and Grace were truly kindred spirits, and we will sure miss that sweet smile.
My first encounters with Alexis were when I returned home to work at the newspaper. The Litchfield Post Office was renovating to become more handicapped accessible, and her dad arranged an interview for me. I have to admit, I was a little intimidated to talk to Alexis at first, but that lasted only a few seconds before she made me feel right at home.

She graced the pages of our newspaper many times as a champion for those of all abilities. Although doctors told her parents she wouldn't live to be a teenager, she celebrated her 40th birthday this year, a graduate student at the University of Illinois.

But it was through my Grace that I really got to know Alexis, not just for her accomplishments, but for her endless kindness and compassion, and her wonderful, loving heart.

Alexis was one of the first to ask for a Gracelet. She wrote mom and asked if she could send her one in Champaign. She was also the very first one to order "A Grace-filled journey" shirt this summer, and I know wore it proudly ever chance she got.

As she began to follow Grace's story and our blog, she was a constant source of encouragement for both Kyle and me. This summer, when Kyle didn't finish the Big Dawg Dare, it was Alexis's comment that touched him the most.

"From 40 years of God-given experience, trust me Kyle Herschelman when I tell you the very best lesson and example you will teach and be for Grace is to know and trust her limitations. Give it your best every day, but stop when your body tells you. The entire community is honored to be a part of your family, without you finishing the Big Dawg Dare."

Alexis has overcome more adversity in her lifetime than any one of us could ever imagine. And she never complained about any of it. She wanted to be challenged in school. She wanted to learn everything she could. And she wanted to make a difference. My friend, you made such a difference in our lives.

She was constantly remembering Grace. Her mom dropped a hockey puck by the office one day that one of the ushers had given her at a Blues game. We put it on Grace's dresser. After we wrote a blog about ladybugs, she found a ladybug bank for Grace (also now sitting on her dresser).

Alexis and Grace were kindred spirits, right down to their love of sweets.  Mom, Grace and I were truly blessed that Alexis and her mom joined us for ice cream this summer. She was getting ready to go back to college, and we loved hearing her excitement and enthusiasm.

That's perhaps why I was so surprised to hear she had passed away. The week before her death, we had run a story in the paper, first published at the University of Illinois about a new project that would amplify her voice. She had contacted me to see if we could run it in the paper here, and was most excited they let us use the photo too. "It's the best picture I think I've ever taken," she wrote.

The following week, she texted me to thank me for running the article.  I told her it was my pleasure and that mom would drop some extra copies by her dad's store.  She told me that unfortunately her journey this year had taken her home for the semester. However, always the optimist, Alexis texted she hoped that meant lunches with Grace at the Ariston and maybe even a chance to watch Frozen together. I thought it sounded like fun.

And just like that she was gone. Not even a chance to say a proper goodbye. But Alexis would probably have been the first to tell me it was all part of God's plan. Many times she shared her favorite verse of scripture on Facebook, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  That's long been a favorite verse of mine as well, and just goes to show that we need to keep our faith where it matters the very most. I may never understand some things in this lifetime, but I know who holds my future. And I'm so grateful that Alexis reminded me of that.

After she passed away, her Facebook wall was full of photos and kind words from friends and family, whose lives she had touched over the years. Alexis wanted to be an art professor and was working toward that goal. Her dad told me that she will indeed still receive her degree from the University of Illinois as she had enough credits to graduate. Although she never actually saw her teaching diploma, Alexis was probably the best teacher any of us will ever meet.

Some of her life lessons to me include always show kindness, never give up, have faith, trust in God and a smile can make anyone's day brighter, even your own.

We were so honored that some of the memorials from her funeral will go to the INAD study in honor of Grace. Alexis reminded me each and every day to always keep going, even when I think it's too hard. For me, it goes back to that quote,"I don't know how my story will end, but nowhere in my text will it ever read, I gave up."

To my dear friend, Alexis, thanks for always reminding me to never give up. I will keep on, for you, for Grace and for all those who need me. You will always be missed. Thanks for being part of our Grace-filled journey. It wouldn't have been the same without you.

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