Shira Ulmer, a sixth-grade math and history teacher at Crestview Preparatory Elementary School in La Cañada, hadn't seen her class since November when she began undergoing surgeries and chemotherapy for breast cancer.
Her class received regular updates about Ulmer's condition and there were hopes that she'd be in good enough condition to attend their graduation this year. Then, on the evening of April 23, Crestview Prep parents received an email from the school saying that Ulmer had died earlier that day at the age of 31, leaving behind her husband and 2-year old daughter.
"Even up until the end we were still hoping she'd bounce back and be able to join us, at least for graduation," said Ryan Bache, Ulmer's fellow sixth-grade English and science teacher at Crestview. "I, as a teacher and a friend, hoped she'd be back next year to teach again."
More than half of Ulmer's class and Crestview's faculty altered their plans for Easter Sunday to attend her funeral, which was held the day after her death in accordance with Jewish custom.
Ulmer's class returned to school Monday and spent the day talking about their teacher, writing poetry, letters to her family and messages to her scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk outside her classroom.
"She was just a great teacher in general and very warm with her students," said Jordan Vahala, one of Ulmer's students. "She was very encouraging and her passing was very tragic for all of us."
Soon the class began discussing ways they could commemorate their teacher's life, like creating a memory book of Ulmer's life and planting a tree in Israel.
"Once you go through that emotional path, you want to do something," Bache said.
A cancer awareness and fundraising group, which had been existing with minimal participation for months after being founded by Cameron Wu, one of Ulmer's students, proved to be the perfect outlet for the grieving class.
Cameron and Bache were already signed up for the Revlon Run/Walk for Women in Los Angeles on May 7 and six days after Ulmer's death, they were joined by 87 other members of the Crestview family, forming a team dubbed the "Crestview Crew." The deadline for teams to register had already passed but members of the Crestview Crew were allowed to join after explaining their situation.
In less than two weeks, the group has raised more than $10,000, largely by students, parents and teachers plugging the team's donation page on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.
"Our original goal was $1,000 but within 24 hours we went up $2,000. Every night almost now I'm changing the goal up [another] $1,000. I sound like a broken record to my parents, I'm like, 'Yes, $8,000, $9,000 — I'm like addicted to the website now," said Cameron, as he sat in Ulmer's old classroom wearing a pink wristband to demonstrate his support for breast cancer research.
Cameron said the team has given Crestview Prep and Ulmer's class the chance to experience closure with their teacher's death.
"It creates a sense that we're not alone and we can help each other through this difficult time. It's good to know everyone shares the same feelings and you're not alone," Jordan said.
What started as a way to work through the grieving process has turned into more, though. Cameron has been asked to share the Crestview Crew's story to the entire group before the Revlon Run/Walk on Saturday.
"It's sort of that grassroots, inspirational movement that's gathered a lot of momentum, or as Revlon Run/Walk says, 'womentum,'" Bache said. "It's really picked up. We've gone from an idea to a tremendous movement."