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Tragedy victim inspires volunteers Elly's Angels helps to change lives

The important part is not that you lose someone but how you change in the aftermath.

Laura Voigt lost her younger sister, Ellyce M. "Elly" Kausner, on Feb. 12, 2009, when Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed into a home in Clarence Center and claimed 50 lives.

"I really believe that when you experience a loss of this magnitude it's an all-consuming grief," Voigt said. "It changes your life in a way that you can't reverse. So you have to choose how it's going to change you."

Voigt, who operates Elite Heat All Stars, a cheerleading facility in East Amherst, didn't wait long to respond -- and neither did the cheerleaders she coached at the time.

After the crash, Voigt, the girls she coached and their parents created Elly's Angels -- a group of volunteers who serve the community in the spirit of Elly, who was a second-year law student when she died at age 24.

"Elly's Angels has helped me not to focus on how tragic this is and how much I miss Elly, but instead I can try to impart all the good things that I got to experience in the 24 years I had with her into the lives of other young women," said Voigt, who has been coaching cheerleading for 10 years and is the director of Elly's Angels.

And on Saturday, about 15 volunteers from Elly's Angels gave about six hours of their time at the Special Olympics competition in the University at Buffalo's Alumni Arena on the North Campus.

The volunteers sported bright blue shirts that read "LivElly," with angel wings on the back.

The three-year-old foundation has two goals: to support the development of young women by creating volunteer opportunities and providing strong mentorship, and to raise funds for infants with special needs -- called Angels -- who are in need of adoption.

Elly's Angels also will be the beneficiary of the Women Lawyers of Western New York's annual Spring "Fun-raiser," from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today at 237 Main St., Buffalo.

Treneeka Cusack, president of Women Lawyers, said the pairing was a perfect fit, pointing to the foundation's mentoring of young women and the fact that Elly was a second-year law student at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, Fla.

"We would like to believe Elly would have become a part of our organization when she passed the bar and became a full-fledged lawyer," Cusack said. "I really wish I could have met her. She sounded like a fascinating person."

Elly was.

Voigt said her sister seized every opportunity and was passionate about life.

"Elly really invested in the people around her," Voigt said. "If you were in a room with her or if you were having a conversation with her, she was very drawn into who you were and invested in who you were.

"She was a real encourager of other people, especially the people that were close with her. She made them feel like they were capable of doing things that they didn't think they could do."

And that quality has affected the young women of Elly's Angels.

Jillian Caprow was one of Voigt's cheerleaders at the time of the crash. Soon after, Caprow became involved in the foundation and helped her coach's efforts to make sure Elly's name was remembered.

Caprow, a 2009 graduate of Williamsville North High School, had never volunteered before joining the foundation. She will be a senior at Oswego State College this fall but still travels home for Elly's Angels events.

Saturday, she was one of the many volunteers at the Special Olympics, where she was able to hand out prizes to the participants.

"I feel like such a different person than I was in high school," said Caprow, who said she no longer focuses on the material aspects of life. "Elly never took her life for granted. She was beautiful inside and out."

Elly's Angels also works closely with Carly's Club, participates in Ride for Roswell, the SPCA, the Food Bank of Western New York and Adoption STAR, which specializes in special-needs adoptions.

At the end of her life, Elly showed an interest in adoption law, Voigt said. So the foundation decided to work with Adoption STAR and gives donations from time to time -- another way to ensure Elly's legacy is never forgotten.

Said Voigt: "For all of us -- for me, my parents and Elly's dearest friends -- it's something that we're very proud of and that keeps her alive for us and means a lot."

To purchase tickets to the annual Spring Fun-raiser, email Tickets also will be available at the door.