By Janie Magruder
Christine Hotchkiss will never forget her daughter Nicole Marie, a smart, outgoing, giggly teen who loved the outdoors, dreamed of becoming a neonatal anesthesiologist and was so protective of her baby brother that she wanted to sleep with him in his crib.
“Her love was felt when you walked into a room, and she was there for you without judgement,” said Hotchkiss of West Chandler.
On New Year’s Day 2007, Nicole, then a 17-old-year senior at Centennial High in Peoria, died from internal injuries sustained in a vehicle accident. She was on a family vacation in Imperial San Dunes Recreation Area near Yuma when the accident took place.
“No time heals all wounds,” her mother said. “But you eventually learn to accept that this person no longer is here, and you do things thinking about them. There isn’t a day I don’t think about my daughter.”
In Nicole’s honor and to help other parents struggling in myriad ways with the loss of a child, Hotchkiss in 2016 started Remember Me Always. The nonprofit organization celebrates the life and memory of those who have died, and provides emotional support and monetary grants to help families pay for funeral expenses.
In recognition of its mission, Chandler Mayor Kevin Hartke proclaimed Nov. 17 Remember Me Always Celebration of Life Day. Hartke urged the community to unite with honor and dignity in proper remembrance of these loved ones every day of the year.
Nicole’s passing was her mother’s first experience with the death of a family member. Her friends and acquaintances largely didn’t know how to respond.
“People don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything, and they just disappear,” Hotchkiss said. “That hurts more. We are not in public crying because we are missing somebody, we are in public trying to survive.”
In addition to Remember Me Always, she started a podcast, “Stories of Hope,” on Spotify. It exists to give hope and inspiration and to let people know they are not alone. Hotchkiss also installs a “Tree of Angels” each Christmas in the lobby of Phoenix Children’s Hospital featuring handmade ornaments personalized with the names of children whose families have been helped by Remember Me Always.
The nonprofit has made about a dozen grants to individuals needing help paying for urns, headstones, keepsakes and other items. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral and burial in 2019 was $9,135.
Shane Rex of Phoenix received two heart-shaped cremation pendant necklaces — one for himself and one for his daughter, MacKenzie — after the death of his younger daughter Isabella. The 11-year-old was diagnosed with leukemia and died six weeks later on July 13, 2018.
Rex hasn’t taken off his necklace, which has a photo of Isabella on one side, her name engraved on the other and a bit of her ashes inside, since he received it from Remember Me Always last Christmas.
“Bella was full of life and brought more love and joy to everyone who met her,” he said. “She was a character and always made me laugh.”
Rex, who now sits on Remembers Me Always’ board of directors, is determined to help other families move through their grief and is looking forward to help with fundraising once COVID-19 is managed.
“Can you imagine not being able to afford an urn? Having a little baggie inside a box that has a printed name on it?” he said. “That’s the last thing people need to worry about.”
For more information, visit remembermealways.org.