Think Higher, Feel Deeper

A year after their daughter’s tragic death, Todd and Michelle Willen are now inspiring young people to “Live Like Ally” by offering scholarships for life-changing travel experiences to help make the world a better place. Cross-Cultural Solutions is proud to partner with the Live Like Ally Foundation in carrying on her legacy.

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Accidents happen every day—tragedies we cannot explain, nor control. But we are not powerless: we get to choose how we respond to the Universe. We can clench our fists and rage against the void, or—what perhaps takes more strength—we can slowly release our grip, one finger at a time, and open our palms, where a butterfly might land.

This is the story of how a family has embraced unspeakable pain and decided to share their daughter’s compassionate spirit with the world.

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It was a beautiful morning on April 25, 2015 when Ally Willen and her two roommates were hiking the Gillespie Pass in Mount Aspiring National Park. Ally was studying abroad in New Zealand and had fallen in love with the country’s breathtaking landscapes, from the Redwood Forest near Rotorua to the glaciers in Fiordland National Park.

Nature frequently reminds us of her unyielding power: at once beautiful—the next moment, terrible. That afternoon, a storm hit: 70 mph winds and torrential hail separated Ally from the other girls. Once authorities were informed that Ally was missing, twenty specialist teams set out to find her. On May 2, a rescue team found Ally’s body; they determined she had been swept away by the Young River.

Before they even returned to the US with Ally’s body, Michelle and Todd Willen knew that they wanted to carry on Ally’s legacy.

“We thought, ‘We’ve got to give back...We felt compelled to do something,’” Michelle said.

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The Willens were soon surprised with a source of inspiration. In honor of Ally, her friend Max Strotbeck decided to set out with a friend to attempt the most difficult climb of his life, the Single Cone in Queenstown. When they reached the top, Max took a photo with a sign saying, “For Ally.” In his Facebook post, he wrote: “Live like Ally.”

The phrase went viral as people shared how moved they were by this young woman. Michelle says at least 500 people came to Ally’s funeral, even those who didn’t know her.

“‘I had people come up to me saying, ‘I feel like I know your daughter.’”

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What was it about Ally Willen that was so special? What does it mean to “Live like Ally”?

Here are a five inspiring things to know about Ally—including a message from Ally herself.

1. Even though she was only 20 when she died, Ally had already volunteered abroad four times.

When she was only 15-years-old, Ally did her own research and told her parents she wanted to volunteer abroad. That summer, she traveled to Tanzania for three weeks to aid classrooms and plant trees with the children. Every year afterward, Ally traveled to a new place—Guatemala, Malawi, and Costa Rica—to lend a hand in the community.

2. Ally was a pen pal for three years with a forty-seven year old man who is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.

Ally regularly exchanged letters with John, or Prisoner 768543. He wrote and hand-painted a card for Ally’s 21st birthday; unfortunately, she never received it. When Ally’s sister Emily told him the news, he wrote back: “She was the only person in the world who genuinely cared about me. She reached out to me, a nobody; she gave me love and dignity when no one else would.”

3. Ally could talk to animals.

Well, sort of. She did spend two weeks deep in the jungles of a Costa Rican animal sanctuary working with sloths. It’s undeniable that Ally had a special connection with living creatures and the Earth, as Emily described in her eulogy:

“From deciding to pursue a vegan diet, to walking around barefoot in the grass and dirt, to initiating heated discussions about the food industry and environmental dangers, my sister’s actions were always fueled by passion and a fierce desire to make this world a better place – for everyone.”

4. For Ally, volunteering wasn’t a hobby; it was a lifestyle.

Ally wrote in her journal that her happiness level was gauged by how many random acts of kindness she could do without telling anyone.

Growing up, Ally and her mother volunteered together with Meals on Wheels, Girls on the Run, and with the local hospital, where they visited patients and brought them goodie carts. On her own, Ally was always giving back: spending time at an animal shelter, organizing bone marrow registration drives, collecting food for local shelters, visiting kids in a foster home, and even digging through her university’s trash to encourage them to start a recycling program.

5. Ally left a fingerprint, a message for us all.

A few days before Ally went missing, she sent a text to Emily about a tattoo design she wanted: a tree with inner rings like a human fingerprint.

As she explained to Emily, “[E]ach time you meet a person, you leave a mark on them (fingerprint) and we have a responsibility to only leave good marks, leave good impressions, and consciously put positive energy into the world.” Ally also wanted the Elie Wiesel quotation, “Think Higher, Feel Deeper,” in tiny print in the rings—a reminder, she said, to “hold me to a higher standard in regards to my actions and behaviors.” Emily now has the tattoo her sister designed.

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Within a month of their daughter’s passing, the Willens decided to start the Live Like Ally Foundation to provide life-changing travel scholarships for young people like Ally who want to make the world a better place. So far they have supported 17 of “Ally’s Allies.” Michelle keeps in frequent contact with each recipient.

“It is the only thing that feels good. I cry every time I talk to the kids. Each one has given me a sliver of [Ally] back...I still cry I don’t know how many times a day, but by doing this, maybe it will create a ripple effect—maybe this could be something big. It doesn’t have to be, but I hope each kid influences even more kids.”

Michelle said they don’t want to create mini-Allys, but to nurture young people's imaginations and give them meaningful life experiences. The Willens believe in Cross-Cultural Solutions’ mission and vision and have decided to include CCS on their list of Organizations We Love. The LLA Foundation will sponsor four CCS volunteers annually.

You can learn more about Ally on her memorial site and more about the Live Like Ally Foundation on their official website.

Learn how to apply for a scholarship on the LLA Foundation website.

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