As she always does, Susan Blaha attended the District 135 annual awards ceremonies that honor her daughter's memory.
Last week, at the close of the school year, the AnnMarie Integrity Award for kindness, loyalty and friendship was presented to Ahlam Abdelrahaman Yasin, a soon-to-be eighth grader at Jerling Junior High, and to Klaudia Sieczka, a soon-to-be sixth grader at Century Junior High.
The award includes a $500 grant that is made possible through the AnnMarie foundation, which has worked to educate parents and children about youth suicide. That work led to the 2015 passage of AnnMarie's Law, which mandates that Illinois schools provide suicide and depression awareness and prevention education programs.
Each year the award recipients are chosen by their teachers, and this year there were several runners-up, a sign that the campaign to promote sensitivity and compassion is working across the district, officials say. An important component of the award criteria includes the student's ability and willingness to reach out to adults when issues arise with friends or themselves, district spokeswoman Jen Beshansky said. By promoting kindness and openness across the school community, Beshansky said, the AnnMarie Foundation hopes to spread awareness and prevent such an incident from happening to others.
Born in Colombia, Ahlam has only lived in Orland Park, and the United States, for a year, but, as usual, her mother said, "She has amassed a crowd of friends."
Ahlam says she strives to be positive, even in the face of adversity, and that she encourages her friends to do the same.
"When they're feeling down, I tell them to look on the bright side," she said. "To kids who are struggling or having a hard time, I tell them there are other people in the world who support you and who can help you. If you're thinking about doing something awful, think about how the people who love you will feel. How they would react if you weren't in their life anymore. There are people who care for you. You're not alone."
An avid rollerblader, Ahlam said her definition of a good friend is someone who is honest and trustworthy and who strives to be positive. She hopes to become an optometrist one day so she can help kids like her younger sisters who have vision problems.
Klaudia, who recently finished up at Meadow Ridge, the same school AnnMarie attended, said when her name was called, "I was so surprised."
The award, she said is a "big deal."
"Integrity is important. It means showing responsibility, caring, kindness and respectfulness, all different kinds of ways you can change a person's day with words," she said.
Being a good friend, she said, means being supportive and trying to understand what someone else is going through.
"In my life, I've gone through some obstacles and my friends actually helped me through," she said.
The pain of losing her aunt and uncle still lingers, she said. But her friends continue to support her, a sentiment she continually tries to afford them, as well.
She said she also relies on her passion for dance to help turn around a bad mood. She takes lessons in contemporary, jazz, Latin, Polish and ballroom dance and thinks maybe she'll be a professional dancer when she grows up.
Upon learning the story of AnnMarie, Klaudia said, "It's hard to believe someone my age could be that sad. I would never think that a girl my age would do something like that. If my friends talked about it. I would tell them I care about them, not to do it."
Each year, Blaha attends the ceremonies to congratulate the winners.
"I love it when teachers or parents say (the award recipients) are 'so much like Ann,'" she said.
Blaha has only recently begun to talk openly about her daughter's suicide.
"For so long, it was just too hard," she said. "But it's important that people remember Ann, that they know her story."
AnnMarie was "our gift," said Blaha, a nurse whose husband Michael Blaha, is deputy chief of police for Orland Hills.
"Her brother and sister were 14 and 16 years older than her. So she was the light of our lives," Blaha said. "She was smart and fun and her heart was huge."
Blaha said, again and again, at parent-teacher conferences, she was told about her daughter's compassion, how she'd reached out to a new student or to someone who felt left out. AnnMarie, she said, met her best friend while standing up for the other girl during a bullying altercation when they were in kindergarten.
There seemed to be no limits to AnnMarie's capacity to care for others. And that, her mother said, may have been her downfall.
"She took the weight of the world on herself," she said.
On June 10, 2013, days after school let out for summer break, AnnMarie, who'd just wrapped up fifth grade, took her own life.
Though Blaha says she'll never understand why her daughter chose such a final solution, she now has a clearer picture of what was going on with her emotionally.
Kids, she said, need to understand that some things in life are so big they warrant a teacher's or parent's involvement.
Blaha admits it is not easy now to stand tall on behalf of others when the loss of her own child has knocked her to her knees, but she is determined that some good come of the heartbreak.
"If I can help one child," she said. "If I can spare one parent this pain."
Four years have passed since that fateful day, two years since AnnMarie's Law requiring school boards to adopt a suicide prevention policy was enacted and yet, Blaha said, "It keeps happening."
The Centers for Disease Control states that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10-14-year-olds and 15-24-year-olds.
The number of children and adolescents admitted to children's hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade, according to new research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Francisco last month.
Lead author Dr. Gregory Plemmons, an associate professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital in Vanderbilt, reported that slightly more than half the patients with suicidal thoughts or actions were aged 15 to 17, while 36.9 percent were 12 to 14, and an additional 12.7 percent were children between ages 5 and 11.
The awards present another angle, something positive and uplifting, Blaha said. To see other children who, in AnnMarie's likeness, get recognized for being caring and compassionate is rewarding and comforting, she said.