THE classmates of a 12-year-old girl who died tragically last year were introduced to the assistance dog she never got to meet, but so longed for, ahead of her first anniversary tomorrow.
Abi McGeough from Dublin Hill was honoured at Rathpeacon National School with a wooden bench in her memory.
Her family described the tribute as very apt, given that she was someone who loved to chat.
After overcoming several obstacles related to her cerebral palsy, Abi had waited in eager anticipation for her assistance dog from Cork charity Dogs for the Disabled.
The 12-year-old had been selected as a suitable candidate for an assistance dog and was waiting to be matched with her new best friend.
Sadly, she died before her dream could become a reality.
Shortly after the tragedy, Dogs for the Disabled welcomed a litter of puppies, naming the only female one after their hero Abi. The assistance dog was brought along to the unveiling of Abi's bench to the delight of her friends and teachers.
Her heartbroken mum fought back tears as she praised the school for how they looked after Abi. She described the close relationship Abi had with her special needs assistant Michelle.
"When Michelle told Abi she had got a new dog she came home all excited and insisted on buying him a present," Leslie Ann said.
"She decided on a blanket. Michelle tells me that she tucks the dog in with Abi's blanket every night. These gestures that seemed small before are now huge and mean more to me than anything."
Leslie Ann acknowledged the important part Michelle played in Abi's life.
"Michelle worked with her for seven years and I know she finds it hard being in the yard seeing children around where Abi used to be. Abi loved Michelle so much she called her her "school mam." They were so interested in each other's lives that Abi came home talking about Michelle's family. I'm sure Michelle in turn learned more about us than we will ever be aware of."
Abi was known for her caring nature.
"Even though she was a child herself Abi was very motherly. She loved to mother everyone and enjoyed having younger kids to take care of."
Leslie Ann said that Abi's bench was an ideal tribute because she loved engaging in conversation.
"She had her own relationship with everyone. Everyone you talk to will have their own story about Abi."
She recalled Abi's determination and resilience.
"Life was difficult for Abi. I was always trying to push her to go to every physio session and to do her best. Now I like to think that she's the one pushing me and that's why I've carried on with my masters. It was something that she really wanted for me. Without Abi, there's no happiness or spark but I see what she had to overcome in her life and I have to keep going-just like she did."
The pair shared many dreams before Abi's death.
"Our plan was that we would go to Australia when I finished my course. She was watching koala bears on television and she said it was a place she really wanted to go."
Leslie Ann's sister Sabrina spoke of how they try to derive comfort from Abi's memory.
"Abi was always taking videos and picture," Sabrina said. "When you're getting your photograph taken you're inclined to say "I'm a state" or I can't get my picture taken. However, we know that none of those things are important now. I will never again delete a photograph because I realise they are all we have."
She recalled her niece with fondness.
"Abi was so happy and so brave. No matter what life threw her way, she always got on with things."
Sabrina added that Abi was wise beyond her years and very sociable.
"If there was somebody on their own she would ask if they were okay. We often commented on her emotional intelligence. She could pick up if someone was uncomfortable or lost and do everything to make sure they were okay. You rarely see that in a child. Her personality meant that she loved chatting to people and came away knowing everything about them."
The fifth class student's excitement about receiving an assistance dog was palpable.
"She had it all planned out right down to the dog bowl and the dog toys. Every time she met her uncle Anthony's brother's dog she would be down on the floor playing with him."
Abi never failed to astound with her life hacks.
"She used to tell her grandad-our dad- to sleep on the left-hand side because there is less pressure on your heart. We used to question all the hacks she came out with. However, every time we googled them they always turned out to be correct."
Leslie Ann said that Abi had been looking forward to becoming a teenager.
"Abi was so happy to go places and loved socialising," Leslie Ann said. "Her biggest question was about when she would be able to go to a pub and drink "mocktails." She got them in a restaurant before and- for her- that was a big occasion. She really enjoyed being around teenagers. I can remember being at a hospital appointment and getting sent a picture of her on my phone with a full face of make-up. It was done better than any celebrity. Abi looked up to her older cousin Jessica and wanted to be a teenager so badly. She had ordered a Hollister top for Abi that was promised to her. By the time it arrived Abi was in hospital."
The courageous mum hopes to follow in Abi's footsteps-all the way up to the top of Carrauntoohil-in memory of her daughter.
"We had climbed Carrauntoohil with a group. I never made it to the top but she did. It was something Abi joked about and never let me forget. Climbing to the top of Carrauntoohil would be a nice salute to Abi. It's something that I'd really like to do as soon as things open up again."
Abi's classmates and friends generously used €600 from their student council fund to pay for the bench. Her aunt and closest friend Ayesha, who is 12 years old and attending the school, was given the opportunity to be the first to sit there. It was also blessed by the school chaplain Fr Gabrielle Burke.
Principal of the school, Susanna O'Neill said she was glad the students were able to use student council funds as a contribution towards remembering Abi.
"It's sitting underneath a beautiful lime-tree so everyone will be able to see it," Ms O'Neill said.
"The bench is surrounded by flowering plants and butterflies made by everyone in fifth and sixth class."
Ms O'Neill emphasised how much the children learned from Abi.
"She taught us to get up no matter how many times you are knocked down. Abi faced so many obstacles in her life but that was always what she did."
To mark Abi's anniversary students sported purple pink and blue with each donating €2 to Dogs for the Disabled.
They are encouraging Echo readers to do the same and donate in Abi's memory by visiting www.dogsfordisabled.ie