Ashley Kuzma always encouraged her students to see as much of the world as possible, and in death, her words have done just that. Kuzma, a 32-year-old gifted support teacher at McDowell Intermediate High School (MIHS), lost her life after a 28-month battle with recurrent laryngeal cancer on Aug. 22. However, her obituary, which she wrote herself, has traveled internationally, and has been published as far as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Kuzma loved to share stories of her travels to Europe during a semester abroad in college and her trip to Mexico to see the Chichen Itza Ruins this past summer. Now, others are sharing her story around the world, which was a topic of conversation as friends, family and colleagues of Kuzma gathered for her Celebration of Life at Perry Hi-Way Hose Company on Oct. 13.
In contrast to a traditional funeral, her Celebration of Life featured an upbeat music playlist, food and drinks, colorful lighting and projected photographs and videos of her life. Stories of Kuzma from her childhood in Beaver County to her sorority days at The University of Pittsburgh to her final weeks at MIHS migrated the room as people exchanged their memories of her.
It was exactly what Kuzma would have wanted, because she planned it herself in a book she compiled prior to her death. Its pages included her obituary, financial information and instructions for where her ashes were to be spread. She did this to make the details easier for her grieving family after her passing.
Megan Kuhn, a McDowell learning support teacher and close friend of Kuzma, says, “She even recorded herself singing, “Happy Birthday” to her mom, dad and sister so that they could listen to it each year and have her with them.”
Kuzma’s thoughtful planning was also always reflected in her teaching. As a social studies teacher at MIHS, she spent hours after school designing lesson plans that would inspire a passion for learning in her students. When she moved into her gifted support position at MIHS in 2017, she helped other teachers engage gifted students by sending well-researched and cited newsletters to teachers with tips on gifted enrichment in the classroom.
Although everyone would have understood if she took time off work to rest during her cancer treatments, “being at McDowell is what she loved and she wanted to be here everyday,” Kuhn says. She continued to come to school throughout her treatments. The day before she was admitted to Cleveland Clinic for the final time, she was in her classroom working with students.
Throughout her grave prognosis, Kuzma kept her friends and family involved in her health, always patient and open to explaining her surgeries and treatments with others. Through it all, she maintained a vibrant appreciation for the often overlooked pleasures of life.
Jill White, a close colleague of Kuzma’s and another gifted support teacher, says, “She had fun with friends and kept people close at a time when pulling back may have been easier.”
Kuzma’s sentiments have been embraced as the McDowell community remembered her at school events as well as a faculty breakfast in her honor.
On Oct. 4, during the 2019 Cureage Cup football game, Gus Anderson Field went still during a moment of silence to remember Kuzma. A statement read before the moment of silence, written by Kuhn and MIHS English teacher Rachel Morey, highlighted the inspiration that Kuzma was to the community, saying, “Her whit, selflessness and appreciation for life was nothing short of admirable.”
Earlier in the day, a group of MIHS teachers wore Cureage Cup T-shirts that Kuhn had adorned with Kuzma’s name on the back in bright white paint. All proceeds of the Cureage Cup went to the American Cancer Society.
Kuzma’s family and friends hope that her love of education will continue for years to come, as well. In May 2019, Kuzma was a grand prize winner of a Norweigien Cruise Line contest, bringing in a $10,000 donation to MIHS, and her co-workers are tasked with deciding where this money goes. There is talk of of a memorial scholarship in her name.
Those who knew her will continue to tell her story, and share the lessons she taught through her “grace and quiet strength.” White says she and others will always be reminded of her desires“to appreciate people, places and experiences that life offers.”