BRADENTON -- When Steven Michael Ostenson died on Oct. 30, 2005, five days after a vehicle crash started by a red-light runner, the ripple effect reached deeply into his East Manatee family, including his wife, Karen, and daughters, Chloe and Cami, who were 5 and 3.
Chloe's world caved in, her mother told a hushed crowd of 200 who hung on her every word at the Just for Girls' "Reaching New Heights" annual awards lun
"Chloe was very angry and told us she didn't like God anymore," Lynch said. "She came home from school crying regularly. With all she was dealing with, she was also being bullied because she was different. Chloe was a ghost in a school with 1,650 students."
Lynch told the crowd that Chloe's downward spiral continued for seven years to the point where, several years ago, she was telling people that she wanted to climb a tall tree and jump from it.
Lynch saw a brochure for Just for Girls, an organization created in 1967 in Manatee County to develop, in the words of current president Patricia Petruff, "strong, confident, emotionally intelligent girls, well-equipped for dealing with whatever life brings."
Just for Girls Alternative Middle School in Palmetto has only 50 students at 1500 10th St. W. Just for Girls also has an Academy for 97 kindergarten through fourth-graders at 1011 21st St. E. and an out-of-school-time program at the West Bradenton Center, 3809 59th St. W.
On a mother-daughter visit to Palmetto, Chloe saw something that made her mind up in a minute.
"I saw this beautiful girl with this happy face and I wanted to be there," Chloe, now 14, told the crowd. "I wanted to be that happy."
Chloe only attended Just for Girls in 2013. She attends Braden River Middle School now.
"They talked to us about leadership," Chloe told the audience. "I was always asking my friends what I should do. But I wanted to be a leader. Now, my friends want advice from me."
"Just for Girls helped saved my girl's life," Karen Lynch said. "I have to tell you, she was very pressured to have a boyfriend at regular school. At Just for Girls she had 15 girls in her class. It was extremely structured. She grasped that like a blanket. She needed that individualized attention and she did feel safe.
"They had counselors," she added. "Any time she needed, Chloe could go to the principal, Dee Ralph, and she knew her story. She didn't have to start from square one every time."
Chloe's life has turned around.
Chloe's mother married Joseph Lynch, who brings his two 13-year-old twin daughters, Abby and Amanda, to Bradenton from California several times a year.
By eating healthy and keeping up with her sporty stepsisters, Chloe went from 160 to 108 pounds.
"They never sleep," Chloe said of Abby and Amanda.
People at Just for Girls were amazed at Chloe's transformation.
"I didn't recognize her," said Margot Moore, a Just for Girls supporter.
Besides Chloe, 94-year-old Jeanne Oliver, Larry and Edie Bustle and Michael Saunders & Company were honored for their contributions to Just for Girls.
Oliver's daughter, Patti MacKay, and her granddaughter, Alana Willey, saw the family matriarch honored for being the director of the Manatee County Girls Club in the 1970s, from which Just for Girls emerged.
Marianne Barnebey not only chaired the luncheon, she also sang at it. Barnebey performed "One Voice" along with Chloe and Cami.
Gail Shane, a home seller with DR Horton, proved to be a funny and witty guest emcee. But the Just for Girls' third-grade chorus, directed by music teacher Alicia Kennedy, really stole the show.
The chorus performed soulful renditions of "Agents of Change," "Thankful for the USA," and "When We Sing."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.