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Ever since she was old enough to talk and walk, Jessica Ridgeway wanted to be a cheerleader.  She was my grand-niece, the daughter of my sister's daughter.  You've probably heard of what happened to her, that she was kidnapped less than a block from home in Westminster, Colorado and murdered on October 5, 2012.  I am not going to talk about that awful crime here. You can use teh Google to find all that news. I want to tell you what kind of person she was, how much we all loved her, and why she was, as I said in our statement to the press, the "light of our life".  

You are probably familiar with her school picture from the previous year, 2011, that the family through the police department gave to the press. She was so cute, smiling and happy. She wore her favorite color, purple.  Her hair was pulled back on top just like her aunt, my niece, wore her hair at the time. She worshipped her aunt, and her aunt of course adored her.  This year, she wore her "bumblebee" outfit, which she had picked out herself.  She looked so much like a young lady, on the cusp between a little girl and a pre-teen. The school released her 2012 school pictures to Jessica's mother before the rest of the kids got theirs, a few days after she went missing. I love that picture the best, and I wonder if she would have liked it. She is so beautiful in this picture.  
Jessica Ridgeway 2012
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My husband and I live halfway across the state, so I didn't get to see her and get to know her as much as my other sister and my mom did.  When I came down to visit, I had to bring my dog, a big, lovable lab mix. It was always the first question she asked, when I would call to let them know I was coming - "Is Baxter coming too?" Of course, he always got to come.  He loved her as much as she loved him. I would alternate between staying at their house or my other sister's house, a few blocks away. The nights I stayed at Jessica's house, I always slept on the bottom bunk of her bunkbed and she always slept in the top bunk. She had one of those remote switches, so she could turn off the light from her top bunk without having to climb back down, and she would let me have the switch when I stayed overnight.  I still sleep in the bottom bunk, but there's no little warm body up above to say "goodnight, Aunt Merry".

Jessica spent a lot of time around her family, mostly women. She was the only kid, as her cousins were almost 10 years and 15 years older than she was, so she got used to being in adult company. She'd come to our house in the mountains and we'd play the games I keep at my house for visiting kids.  We played a lot of Jenga because it was a fun game for all of us and didn't take a lot of setup and time. I tried to teach her how to play backgammon one recent visit, and was going to give her a small set I had so she could keep it at her house.  We would color or she'd draw chalk pictures on the sidewalk outside. We liked to go swim in the hot springs pool and bring all the pool toys to play with.

One visit, when Jessica was probably about 5 or 6, she wanted to play with Baxter but she couldn't throw his toys very far, so I suggested she try playing tug-of-war with him.  That dog knew she was only half his size and so he would gently pull on the rope and she would pull as hard as she could on the other end, laughing and falling backwards on her little butt.  She loved that game.  So did Baxter.

My sister and Jessica's mom and aunt would go on trips all over the area. Last summer they went to visit some relatives of ours in the Midwest, and she finally had some kids her age to play with. They told my mom a garbled story about a shoe and the puppy and the weed poison when they were out on the swing set, and my mom, Jessica's great-grandmother, was wondering, what are they talking about?! Turns out, the puppy stole a shoe from one of the kids and then tried to chew up the bottle of weed poison (not to worry, they got it away from her!). They all thought it was pretty funny. I guess you had to be there, but she really enjoyed herself.

As I said in the beginning, Jessica always wanted to be a cheerleader. She would watch the cheerleaders at the local high school games, and she would try to imitate the moves they made and would make up her own routines. She would sing along with the tv or her boom box, and try to do a dance/cheer routine for us. We'd watch attentively and applaud, like any adoring family would. Then we would tell her, we adults want to visit, can you find something else to do?  So she would come and sit on the couch with me and play games on her laptop (I would have to participate some), or she would play with my dog.  I've got tons of pictures of Jessica and Baxter, since she spent as much visit time as she could with him. One day we were replacing my mom's screen door, and Jessica and my mom and I went to the hardware store. They went in and got their items and some popcorn, their favorite thing to do. Later, I asked her if she would like a picture with the dog, and of course, I didn't have to ask twice. It's one of my favorites.

Jessica and Baxter, May 2012
Jessica and Baxter
This last winter, Jessica took part in the high school cheerleader's "Pee Wee Cheer Camp", and just loved it. A family friend took a video, and you could tell she was in her element.  All the years of trying out her own routines on the family were evident in her enthusiasm.

Two weeks before Jessica was lost to us forever, I came down to visit.  We sat on the couch, after playing "waitress and customer" (she would take our order and go into the kitchen and pretend to bring us food).  Jessica showed me how to use my new computer's video program and I made a video of myself, which I later deleted. She showed me some videos she'd made of herself doing cheerleading routines on her computer, and we then exchanged e-mail addresses since she had a gmail account.

The next morning, all of us went out for breakfast before I left to go back home. Jessica was having a bad morning - wrong side of the bed and all. She didn't want to take a shower. When we got to the restaurant, she didn't want to order off the kids menu so her mom and grandma let her order a full size meal.  Then she only ate a few bites and pushed it around her plate, until I got annoyed and took it away from her. Of course, then she started to cry because she was just having a terrible morning (we've all had them), and I felt bad that I had been annoyed.  I helped her dry her tears and promised that from then on, we'd share a breakfast so she could have what she wanted but wouldn't have to worry about wasting it.  Then we all parted ways, and I gave her a big hug. She said goodbye to Baxter, and that was the last time I saw her.

Then that fateful day, Friday October 5, 2012, her aunt called, to say she was missing. It was the worst day of all our lives. It got worse, a few days later, when they found a little body, and on the 10th of October the Medical Examiner confirmed that it was Jessica, our precious little girl. We've all cried a river of tears since then, and it won't dry up anytime soon.

We have to move forward, though, life does go on. The family, and the community, are not forgetting the cute little girl who loved her family, cheerleading, the color purple and dogs. We have a website, JessicaRidgeway.com, where the family keeps the world updated on what is going on.

There's a foundation now, and we're working on funding a cheerleading camp for little girls, so they can realize their dream of cheerleading. It may change its focus in the future, but for now, some of the money that was donated to the family is going to be used to fund the Jessica Ridgeway Legacy Foundation.  The credit union who is the custodian of the account has had a donation from members, to get things going.

The City of Westminster, at the request of some wonderful people in the neighborhood, have renamed the park where she loved to play and where she may have been abducted. It was called Chelsea Park, named for no particular person but a place name in England. The City Council unanimously voted to rename it Jessica Ridgeway Memorial Park. A new sign was donated by a local company. People still leave mementos. I have some of the purple mums that were left there by strangers in my garden now, to remember her and remember all the outpouring of support and love from the community. There is still some money to be raised to re-build the playground and the park amenities, but the Colorado Garden and Home Show has donated $50,000.00 towards rebuilding the park with purple and green, to remember Jessica.

My family is grieving in different ways, at our own pace. Although we've lost other family members, this kind of grief, having our little girl taken so suddenly and so violently, will never be the kind of grief that the passing of a loved parent or grandparent brings. We usually are able to work through that grief, and smile fondly when we think of them. I don't think we'll ever be able to leave our pain behind when we think of Jessica, but we will remember her and talk about her as long as we live.  We will also always have our anger, sadness, and the inability to understand the utter senseless waste of such love, such wonderful talent and such potential lost, because of another person. I can definitely relate to other families who have lost loved ones to murder.  We'll continue to try to give back to our communities, since they have given so much to us.

We will never forget her. She is still the light in our lives, and a reason to live a better life.

Jessica Ridgeway with gloves and hat

Originally posted to Lightly, oh so Merrily on Mon Jan 21, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by The Grieving Room.

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