WESTVILLE — Kaitlyn Foster was born with a weak heart, though that hardly defined her, friends said this week.
In fact, they said, the 15-year-old Westville girl had one of the most generous and caring hearts of anyone they knew. And after she received a new one through a heart transplant three years ago, she made it her mission to help other children battling an illness and their families.
Kaitlyn died on Tuesday at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Sheri Atwood and Sean McBride, both friends of Kaitlyn and her family, said the teen's legacy of helping others will live on through a special fundraising event that she started with her mother, Carmen.
They also said the Kaitlyn Foster Benefit, scheduled for Saturday, will go on, as well.
"We want to raise as much as we can," said Atwood, who, along with McBride and J.R. Mullins, organized the event to help her family with medical expenses.
Kaitlyn suffered from cardiomyopathy, basically a weakening of the heart muscle. She spent her life in and out of hospitals, underwent four open heart surgeries and then, at age 12, had a heart transplant at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago in July 2009.
"She's been one heck of a fighter," Atwood said, adding she admired Kaitlyn's spirit and positive attitude. "I can't imagine what she went through, and yet she was always this sweet, happy girl. She cared about other people, and she would do anything for anybody."
After the transplant, McBride recalled, Kaitlyn and her mother wanted to do something to help other children who are ill and undergoing medical treatment. McBride, the secretary of the Masonic Lodge in Catlin, met the family when the lodge made a donation for Kaitlyn in 2009 and helped them launch the Kaitlyn Foster Picnic for Kids in Westville's Zamberletti Park in 2010.
McBride said the annual event has raised around $8,000 over the last three years. Donations were given to three families the first year and five the second, and they will be given to more families this year.
Sadly, McBride said, Kaitlyn collapsed the day before the third annual picnic. She also wasn't able to compete in Westville Labor Day Celebration Junior Miss Pageant, to which she was looking forward.
Atwood said Kaitlyn's body started rejecting her new heart. In Chicago, she was placed on dialysis after her kidneys shut down and was on life support for some time.
"We want to keep it going," McBride said of the picnic fund raiser, adding Kaitlyn would have wanted that. "We hope it grows into a large thing."
The Kaitlyn Foster Benefit will be held at The Riggle Banquet Center, 400 W. Lyons Road, Belgium, on Saturday.
A poker run will begin at 11 a.m. at the banquet center. Registration begins at 10 a.m.
The entry fee is $10 per motorcycle or other vehicle. Stops include House of Bikes in Danville, Bar Noble in Covington, Ind., Willie's Place in Cayuga, Ind., and the Pump House in Georgetown, and it will end back at Belgium.
Doors for the benefit will open at 3 p.m.
The Catlin Masonic Lodge will provide food, and music will be provided by D&J Entertainment.
An auction will begin at 5 p.m. There also will be a 50/50 drawing.
Donations also can be made to the Kaitlyn Foster Fund at Landmark Credit Union in Westville and Danville.