Celebration of Life honors 3 GCU freshmen

Parents Sundie and Brady Woodbury reflect on childhood memories of their daughter Abriauna Hoffman.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Remembrance is something that unites us regardless of our differences with a restorative power that heals grief.

And Tuesday night, Grand Canyon University hosted a Celebration of Life for freshmen Abriauna Hoffman, Hunter Balberdi and Maggie Ogden in Antelope Gymnasium as an act of remembrance. The lives of the three friends and Diamondback Apartments suitemates were cut short in the early hours of Oct. 10 when a wrong-way driver hit their vehicle head on.

Among those who gathered to remember the precious lives lost was LoPaki Fuiava and friends, Balberdi's self-proclaimed “bodyguards.” He described Balberdi, who was born and raised in Hawaii, as a bright light who exuded happiness and joy.

LoPaki Fuiava and fellow friends of Hunter Balberdi referred to themselves as her "bodyguards."

“There are times where I would be having a bad day and there she would be, smiling cheek-to-cheek, saying, ‘It’s OK ‘Paki,’ happier as ever — even in times where she wasn’t having the best day,” he said.

“Hunter gave me a sense of peace and was my home away from my home in California. While these three girls gave us the sense of family, we are blessed enough to meet the parents and siblings of these three girls, and we can see why they were the way they were.”

Director of Spiritual Life Erik Nelsen referenced several scriptures during the celebration, including 2 Timothy 1:10.

Ogden, who celebrated her 18th birthday just two days before the accident, was a three-sport, four-year varsity athlete, maintained all A’s throughout high school and volunteered for more than 200 hours. She studied biology with a pre-med emphasis and was known for her zest for life and loving others. Along her bedroom walls were sticky notes of affirmations and descriptions of what she wished to achieve in life. She surrendered herself in notes and dove into artistic expression, journaling the things for which she was grateful.

As part of the celebration, Director of Spiritual Life Erik Nelsen shared a journal entry Ogden wrote to honor her parents, who could not attend.

Students attend the Celebration of Life ceremony for Hunter Balberdi, Maggie Ogden and Abriauna Hoffman.

In Ogden’s words:

I am extremely grateful for life because it is an unexplained miraculous perfectly created existence. That my soul was sent to this specific body to live out my own divine purpose as the being I am but simultaneously making a positive impact on every other soul because we are all the same. I am them, they are me, we are mortal yet so unimportant. It was an impossible chance I was gifted the body in life I have. I do the best I can that my existence brings me happiness, meaning fulfillment and prosperity — that I die and that's all I ever was thank you thank you thank you.

God made sure she made the most of each moment by allowing His love to pour from her through every rescued animal, tight embrace, interaction and every big, loud, smiling grin she wore on her face.

Parents Sundie and Brady Woodbury said their daughter's courage and drive for success was evident, even as a toddler.

The three young women were more than just GCU college students. They were a friend, a confidant, a light and someone’s daughter.

After the Celebration of Life, students embraced and consoled Sundie Woodbury, mother of Abriauna Hoffman.

Among the solemn crowd were Hoffman’s parents, Sundie and Brady Woodbury, who stood at the podium praising the beautiful life their daughter lived.

“When we received the news of the accident I knew — knew that between her fight and my love that we could save her,” Sundie said. “We couldn’t save her.”

The words were painful to say, but Brady reinforced her strength as she painted a picture of the toddler version of Hoffman and the heroism that we call motherhood.

“One day when we were swimming, she went into the deep end and went under. I grabbed her, she looked at me, blinked and she went right back into the deep end again,” she said. “I was so scared, but she always went for something over and over again until she succeeded.”

This philosophy led the trajectory of how Hoffman continued forward in all aspects of life. That same fighting spirit and courage remained evident until the end.

“That is how she lived her life,” Sundie said. “She never let fear stop her from doing anything, and if she stumbled along the way she kept going until she succeeded.”

Brady said he got off to a rocky start as a father. He attributes Hoffman’s inability to resist his late night grilled cheese sandwiches and her three-time battle with COVID as the factors that ultimately won over her protective and strong heart.

“I love you Abe and I know that you love me — and I know you do because you finally told me right before we brought you here to GCU,” he said.

Students took the opportunity to sit and reflect after the ceremony.

Although Ogden, Balberdi and Hoffman are no longer here in physical form, the memories shared Tuesday night are a testament to the wonderful life they lived and are what make them very much alive. They live on in the memory and lives each individual has touched.

“While we do weep and mourn for the loss of precious life tonight, we also do rejoice together in the sweet gift of life that we’ve been given,” Nelsen said. “They inspire and encourage us by the stories of passion that they had.”

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalms 34:18)

Contact staff writer Lydia P. Robles at 602-639-7665 or [email protected].

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Related content:

GCU News: GCU mourns the loss of two unforgettable students

GCU News: GCU celebrates the lives 9 who made people smile

GCU News: Ceremony remembers those GCU has lost

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