It’s incredible what can happen when a group of neighbors and friends band together to show their love and support to a North Naples family that just lost their 18-year-old daughter, a young lady who cared about and looked out for others in need.
What started out as a small gesture turned into a grand outpouring of pay it forward donations — both large and small — in the name of the family’s youngest daughter, Averie Petro, who died Sept. 27, 2013. Averie had just recently graduated from Gulf Coast High School and was making plans to attend college in Maryland beginning this year, with hopes of one day becoming a special needs teacher.
A Christmas tree suddenly and anonymously appeared Dec. 1 on the front porch of Tim and Cheryl Petro’s quaint two-story home, located in the Candlewood development just north of Immokalee Road.
On top was a large red and silver “A,” for Averie, and a small note letting them know what was to come.
“You’re probably wondering what this may be,” the note reads. “This, in fact, is the ‘Averie Tree.’ Right now it is bare, with nothing but an ‘A,’ but you’ll notice more ornaments appear everyday.
“It’s obvious the legacy that was left behind by Ave, so in honor of her, acts of kindness will be made,” it continues. “So sit back, relax, and each day check out the tree, as we pay it forward in honor of Averie.”
Since its arrival, the notes, pictures and ornaments have blossomed so much so that there is little room left on the tree, which still stood proudly on the Petro’s porch this week. The couple had a difficult time even thinking about putting it away.
Averie’s parents sat in their dining room, recounting what their daughter and their community’s sudden support meant to them.
“I pulled in my driveway and immediately started crying,” Cheryl Petro said of seeing the tree for the first time, adding that she didn’t initially realize its significance but that both she and her husband were “overwhelmed” once they read the note.
Some of the ornaments shared what they loved about Averie and how much she will be missed. Others shared what they planned to do in her honor, or what had already been done.
For instance, one note said that more than 250 Immokalee residents were fed a meal and given homemade cookies to take home, something Averie was well known for doing for neighbors and friends.
“There were some days you wanted to look at the tree, and other days you didn’t,” Tim Petro said, not having to mention the reasons why.
But only some of the ornaments were signed. Many of the families, friends and neighbors who sneakily placed both the tree and the ornaments didn’t want to take any credit. The Petros have their suspicions of who is behind it all, but the neighbors aren’t coming clean.
Tim Petro said that is pretty much exactly how he, his wife, their other daughter Amanda and Averie operated as well.
For many years, the family has helped those who needed a helping hand. For example, Tim Petro said Averie once boxed up dozens of her old Barbie dolls and traveled with her father to deliver them. The family also banded together with their neighbors — likely the same ones behind this tree — and bought more than 100 bicycles to give away to needy families in Immokalee.
But each time they helped someone out, the family didn’t want recognition or to have the spotlight pointed at them.
That is why they are also hoping that the little “pay it forward” cards that suddenly arrived under the tree, likely printed out by some of these same neighbors, with Averie’s picture on them, make their way throughout the Southwest Florida community, and beyond. The cards are meant to be handed to a recipient of a “pay it forward” gesture, such as a free meal. They include a small note that reads, “If this made you happy, pay it forward! In loving memory of Averie.”
After seeing the cards, Tim Petro bugged his neighbors until they finally relented and printed some out for him, so he could also pay for some meals and keep the movement going. When he took several of the little cards to a fast-food joint recently, he said chaos quickly ensued and the employees were unsure of how to proceed. It was “entertaining” for him, knowing he was doing something anonymously for someone else, while also hoping they will pass along the cards and a nice gesture to others.
“The ultimate goal for me would be to get one of these cards back,” he said. “There is no reason this has to just be a Christmas thing.”
In addition to being a person who sought to make others happy, the Petro couple described their daughter as a “girly girl” who loved to run. She was a member of the Gulf Coast High School cross country team and participated in two half marathons, one of which was held at Disney World where she wore a princess costume her mother made for her.
Although the tree and daily addition of more ornaments was a pleasant (although at times, understandingly difficult) surprise, Tim and Cheryl Petro weren’t at all shocked that others wanted to show how much Averie meant to them.
“She got a lot of her self-worth by helping other people,” her father said, later mentioning that she started a nonprofit organization — called Nickels for Nutrition — that aimed to provide lunch to students who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The goal was for students who could easily afford lunch to donate a nickel every day, and that the collection of hundreds of nickels would pay for dozens of students to eat.
In recognition of Averie’s goal, one of the secret ornament givers collected hundreds of nickels and placed bags of them under the tree.
Although Averie and her father had difficultly getting the organization started months ago, things suddenly fell into place after her untimely death and the family reports that it is now up and running. Donations can be made to Nickels for Nutrition at the Regions Bank branch at 7950 Airport Road North in Naples.
Toward the end of the Christmas season, another note appeared on the tree, further explaining its purpose.
“This is the story of a tree,” it reads. “A tree to help you through what we all knew would be a difficult month for you... Our hope is that the tree helped. Our prayer is that each day you hurt less and heal a little more. Most of all, we want you to know: You are loved. We hurt for you. We remember Averie... With love, your friends, neighbors and family.”