Cards are stacked on the table at which Giselle Esm?Ayala ate her breakfasts before she left Santa Rosa for college in San Luis Obispo last fall and launched the most exhilarating chapter yet in her young but bursting and impactful life.
In the anguished though grateful notes, friends of Giselle tell her parents she was extraordinary for her voice and dancing and for the way she stood up against bullying and injustice, engaged with people generally ignored by others and, truly, saved lives.
"Your daughter changed my entire life," one young woman wrote. "She was there for me in times of incredible grief, and she was the only one who knew of my deepest insecurities.
"I want you to know that your daughter absolutely saved my life."
Similar declarations by other friends of the beautiful, well-traveled Giselle are of great comfort to her parents and other family members as they struggle with her death at age 18 from an apparent fall last weekend in Santa Barbara.
Having read the cards and for days heard comments from people helped or deeply inspired by Giselle, an aunt from Southern California, Barbara Welty, said at the breakfast table, "She didn't know the degree of her magnificence."
Giselle was 6 years old and already a dancer when her parents, educators Emiliano and Cat Ayala, moved with her and her older sister, Nastassia, now 21, from Palm Springs to Santa Rosa in 2000. Giselle was soon performing in musicals at Madrone Elementary and becoming good at hip-hop and jazz at The Dance Center.
She played competitive soccer until she entered ArtQuest at Santa Rosa High and focused much of her energies on the vocal music program.
"Being in the concert choir was a big part of who she was in high school," her father said.
Giselle lived and studied in Argentina for a semester as a junior and came home fluent in Spanish and appreciative of a broadened and matured world view. Other trips took her to South Korea, Kenya and Guatemala.
She graduated from SRHS with a 4.4 grade-point average and couldn't wait to enter Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as a sociology major.
"She studied sociology because she was fascinated by differences in people and the observations of cultures," Cat Ayala said. "She saw situations with such clarity and balance."
Both of Giselle's parents she said phoned and texted home from college frequently to say how thrilled she was to be taking on a rigorous course of study and making more of her own decisions.
Cat Ayala recalled her daughter saying recently, "Mom, I want to be as smart as I can be."
Her father said she "was driven to succeed" and he believes her determination to help others suggested she was preparing herself to make positive change in the world.
"There was something about social justice that drove what she wanted to do her life," he said. Added his wife, "She had so much hope for a better world."
Giselle came back to Santa Rosa during spring break the last week of March. Her parents said she was pleased to have some quiet time but also eager to resume her studies and her new life in San Luis Obispo.
"The day she died, she was never happier," Cat Ayala said. She said that following spring break her daughter delved back into her college life for a week, then traveled to Santa Barbara with a friend for the weekend of April 6 and 7.
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