The girl with the electric smile lost her battle with ovarian cancer two days before what would have been her first day as a senior at Liberty Ranch High School. Taylor Steele had already been elected student body president.
Her family hopes to keep her legacy alive through an organization she founded to promote cancer research and outreach. Its title, Strong as Steele Cancer Foundation, comes from the phrase her soccer team coined when the 17-year-old was first diagnosed five years ago.
"Taylor was an amazing young lady, student and Liberty Ranch Hawk," school Principal Brian Deis said in an email Thursday. "In all my years in education I have never met a student who exemplified school spirit as much as Taylor, and you would be hard pressed to find one who has touched as many people; students and staff."
A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today at the Liberty Ranch campus on Marengo Road.
Some 300 to 400 people showed up to the athletic fields at Liberty Ranch for a candlelight vigil at 9 p.m. Monday, just 45 minutes after news of Taylor's death was posted on Facebook, said Brian Crosson, youth pastor at Horizon Community Church in Galt.
Liberty Ranch leader
Taylor, who grew up in the tight-knit community of Herald, attended Arcohe Elementary School and later Liberty Ranch, where she would have been part of the school's first graduating class in June.
She was proud to be a self-described country girl.
In high school, she played many sports, including competitive soccer, and showed sheep and pigs through Galt's Future Farmers of America, where she also served as its chapter president. She was the district's first State FFA Degree recipient, the highest honor that can bestowed upon an FFA member at the state level.
Adviser Mandy Garner met the Steele family five years ago when Taylor's older sister started high school.
"It is no coincidence that Taylor was such a special girl; her whole family is extraordinary," she said. "Taylor was a leader in our FFA chapter, serving as an officer, but more importantly an example of what can be achieved through hard work and a 'let's make it happen' attitude."
She recalls when the two of them, joined by Steele's best friend and fellow officer Allison Finkes, attended the National FFA Convention last year in Indianapolis. They heard a guest speaker whose message was to be better, not bitter — a phrase that would be tested when the trio's flight home was canceled and they were told they would be stuck for three days due to weather.
"We all laughed and said we would be better and not bitter," Garner said. "We were able to get a flight out of Chicago, but it meant renting a van and driving all night. That night was one of our favorite memories as we sung to the radio, made up music videos, and posed in front of Harpo Studio (Oprah's filming location) once we got to Chicago. Any time Taylor was around it was more fun, more creative and just more."
Taylor was also a member of the Galt Horizon Community Church youth group.
"She's in heaven," Crosson said. "She's the lucky one right now. It sucks for us."
It was her cause that kept Taylor going, according to friends and family.
She founded Strong As Steele to draw awareness to the disease. She is the youngest patient known, by any of her doctors, to be diagnosed with the particular form of ovarian cancer she had, according to her website.
Her team of physicians hailed from Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento, as well as Stanford University and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
"She chooses to live each and every day to its fullest. She finds sleep boring and she loves to sing, dance and spend time with family and friends," the website reads. "She is a fighter, longs to be a survivor but mostly, she is a teenager that wants to make a difference in the lives of others."
Crosson was amazed how Taylor would apologize to family and friends for the inconvenience of having to drive all the way to Sacramento to visit her at Sutter hospital.
"She was lying on the (hospital) bed, and she would ask, 'How you are doing? What's new with your family?'" Crosson said.
Finkes, a friend of Taylor's for 10 years, added, "She could have moped about having cancer, but it was never about her."
Finding a purpose
Taylor formed Strong As Steele Cancer Foundation because her goal was to do something to make a difference in the world.
"I could choose to focus on my illness," Taylor said on the website, "or I can take a stand and do something that focuses on research and help for the many affected by cancer."
The idea actually came to her while laying in a hospital bed receiving one of her chemotherapy treatments, according to family.
In addition to the foundation's website, a Facebook page was launched for the nonprofit last September. Since then, it has received more than 1,600 "likes," or people who receive regular updates.
Both acquaintances and close friends left messages of encouragement after learning the news that Taylor lost her battle. Many commented on how in her short life she had made the world a better place. Others called her an angel, now free from her earthly body.
Yet another talked of how it was Taylor who walked her through her nerves and the steps of having an MRI, likely because Taylor had been around doctors for so many years she was not afraid.
Taylor had been hospitalized for weeks before her death.
Just days earlier, booths and Herald firefighters were getting the word out about the foundation at the annual Herald Day event. The efforts also brought in donations through merchandise such as tumblers and T-shirts created by Taylor.
Firefighters affixed tiny "Strong as Steele" stickers to the windshields of their trucks.
Back at Liberty Ranch, Deis said losing Taylor was like losing a relative.
"She embodied the meaning of a phrase we use here, 'We are Liberty Ranch.' Her impact on Liberty Ranch and this community will be felt for years to come," he said. "We have lost a member of our family, and we will miss her."
Garner echoed those sentiments.
"Taylor will always be a part of us because she had a way of making people feel special and she motivated you to be a better person. She affected so many because she was so good to everyone," she said, recalling her character.
"I will miss watching Taylor get people out on the dance floor, speaking in front of a group of people with such confidence or watching her bright eyes light up and she encouraged other people to get involved in FFA or school," she said. "She was a special one to me, to everyone in FFA, and to our entire campus at Liberty Ranch."
For more information about Taylor's foundation, visit www.strong-as-steele.org.
News-Sentinel staff writer Ross Farrow contributed to this report.