“I’m proud of her. It’s hard to see everyone, what they’re doing, and now she’s not here,” said Aislinn O’ Rourke, commenting on her late daughter’s accomplishment of graduating from high school. While wiping tears from her eyes, O’ Rourke discussed the emotions surrounding a graduation ceremony her daughter wouldn’t get to attend.
O’Rourke, at the time of this interview, was deciding if she would be attending the David Thompson Secondary School graduation ceremony being held six months after the passing of her 17-year-old daughter Makayla O’Rourke. She stated it was Open Doors teacher Maegan Stanbury who was trying to convince her to attend.
“She said ‘she deserves that chair up there, whether she wanted to attend or she didn’t. She deserved that chair up there with the rest of them you know, she made it, she did it’,” said O’Rourke.
Stanbury described Makayla as a resilient young lady with beautiful red flowing locks. She was a student who had a long-term plan.
“She was Makayla, she was the girl who had her head down working all the time. She was focused,” said Stanbury.
Makayla was an above average Open Doors student, who excelled in all her courses, not just one. She was artistic, determined, and focused on a career in aircraft maintenance. Makayla was graduating early from the Open Doors program awaiting her grade 12 provincial exam in February, receiving a conditional acceptance to Southern Alberta Institute of Technology for Aircraft Maintenance Engineers Technology.
Stanbury recalled the day Makayla handed her the acceptance for S.A.I.T. Makayla didn’t say anything, she just handed it to her.
“I read the letter and it’s like ‘you have been accepted, we’re waiting on your transcripts from your school’. And I’m like ‘are you kidding me’ and I looked up and beaming smile and she’s like ‘I got in’,” said Stanbury.
Getting to that point hadn’t been easy. Makayla overcame bumps in the road, as Stanbury put it life gets in the way sometimes and she overcame it. Makayla had a team behind her supporting her to get to graduation. Stanbury commenting her grandparents Len and Carol had been integral in that.
“It was arranged we would be cognizant of her schedule, so with the help of her and her family she would be able to create her own schedule of when she felt comfortable coming. Her grandparents supported her every step of the way. They dropped her off, they picked her up, they waited for her if she didn’t feel comfortable. They were integral,” said Stanbury.
Like any high school graduate, Makayla bounced between multiple careers she wanted to pursue. At one point wanting to be an underwater welder, aircraft maintenance worker, or even a veterinarian. Her consideration of veterinarian school was no surprise as Makayla was known for her passion for animals, particularly her nine birds.
“She researched them and did everything she had to; she clipped their wings and trimmed their feet and learned about how to feed them with different food and what she thought they needed and vitamins. To keep them from getting bored she had different toys and stuff and knew to change them around,” said her grandma Carol Slotta.
Ultimately deciding veterinarian school would take too long, the 17-year-old decided to pursue airplane maintenance but her love for animals was a passion her family couldn’t ignore. With nine birds, a gecko she snuck into her grandparents home, and a horse she kept busy caring for all her pets.
On December, 27th 2016 Makayla spent the day riding her palomino horse Taz with her eight-year-old brother and other family members. As an outdoor family, they made plans to set an ice fishing hut the next day, Slotta commenting Makayla was the one who caught the fish.
The morning of December 28th, 2017 their lives changed forever as O’Rourke received the phone call no mother ever wants to get. Makayla had passed away just three weeks shy of her 18th birthday.
“You never really know what it feels like ‘til it happens to you. That’s the only way I think to describe it,” said O’Rourke.
With her passing, Makayla missed her grade 12 English provincial exam, but her principal wrote the Ministry of Education on her behalf to get her approved for graduation.
While her peers prepare for commencements, Makayla’s accomplishments will not be going unrecognized.
At her Open Doors graduation, her mom was presented with her certificate along with her graduation cap, which fellow classmates tossed during the traditional hat toss. During the DTSS ceremony, Makayla had her seat on stage alongside her peers and was recognized during the ceremony.
“It’s just hard because she’s not here and she deserves it and everyone is just moving on and forward and it’s hard to see that,” said O’Rourke.
Makayla is remembered as the light of her family, the first to graduate and be accepted into post-secondary. She is remembered by her peers for her adventurous spirit, determination, and selflessness.
“She was a soul that never judged because she knew how it felt. So no matter what she always looked at you genuinely,” said Stanbury.
For her family, Makayla’s diploma and graduation cap will forever serve as a reminder of the light she brought to their home. The family plans to frame both together to be hung on the wall as a memento of all she had accomplished in her young life. Forever remembered as the one who made it, their light, their graduate.