2009-10-09 / Schools

Loss of beloved custodian brings deeper meaning to cancer walk

Relay for Life is this weekend at Royal High
By Joann Groff joann@theacorn.com

Camelia Tatu Camelia Tatu Hundreds of local residents will participate in the Relay for Life this weekend to support those affected by cancer and to raise money to battle the disease. But a group of students and staff will be walking for one of their own who lost her fight this week.

Camelia Tatu, a Simi Valley resident, was a loved member of two local school districts as a custodian at Mountain View Elementary in Simi and Conejo Elementary in Thousand Oaks.

She died Monday after an eight-month battle with breast cancer.

Tatu played basketball professionally in Romania before immigrating to the United States. She was her family’s sole breadwinner and had worked two jobs ever since she came to the U.S.

Her husband, Noel Layton, is a Vietnam War veteran. Their son, John Thomas “J.T.” Layton, is a freshman at Royal High School.

Shelley Chipinka, an instructional aide at Mountain View Elementary School, said Tatu worked up until the Wednesday before she died. She came in Thursday but was sent home.

“She was a workhorse,” Chipinka said. “She just worked, worked, worked her whole life. We didn’t know how bad off she was. She didn’t tell us, to protect us.”

Giselle O’Connor, office manager at Conejo Elementary, said they, too, were surprised.

“I spoke to her two weeks ago, and a teacher e-mailed her last week,” O’Connor said. “She was upbeat and sending jokes. We were absolutely shocked. I really thought she was going to beat it. The staff is very, very saddened.”

Francene De Fazio, Mountain View’s office manager and Tatu’s friend, accompanied Tatu to her first appointment with the oncologist in January.

“She didn’t want to face the reality of everything,” De Fazio said. “She told the doctor that she didn’t want to know her ‘expiration date’—that’s what she called it. She fought from day one.”

Tatu took about seven months off of work but returned to Mountain View a month ago when her disability ran out.

“She loved our school and loved our kids,” De Fazio said“She wanted to be around the people she loved.”

Tatu worked closely with Mountain View students. She gothem involved in cleaning up trash and helping take care of the campus. She was well-liked throughout the school.

Tatu’s family couldn’t afford to fly her mother out from Romania to be with her during her illness, so Mountain View kids and staff and others in the district donated funds for the trip. Tatu’s mother flew out in March. She now has a green card and will remain with her daughter’s family.

Mountain View’s principal and counselors went from class to class Tuesday to inform the students of Tatu’s death.

“Some were really heartbroken,” De Fazio said. “But when they broke the news it actually opened up a nice dialogue. Teachers talked with their students about it, and some shared about their own family. They are already listing ways we can honor her.”

The school is planting a garden of camelia bushes in front of the campus. They are also considering installing a plaque next to the American flag.

“She was a very, very proud American,” De Fazio said. “She loved the American flag and the American way.”

Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society’s signature event, is a 24-hour walk in which participants raise money for cancer research. Nearly 5,000 communities across the country participate. This year’s event in Simi Valley starts Saturday at Royal High School.

“We really wanted her to be a part of Relay for Life,” De Fazio said. “We were really surprised when (she died), because she never really complains about anything.”

De Fazio said that about half the school’s staff of 75 were registered to participate in Relay for Life, but since Tatu’s passing nearly all have signed up.

The students are now even more dedicated to the event.

“The kids were told, and now Relay for Life means so much more than it did,” Chipinka said. “It meant a lot before, but now there’s a whole new level.”

O’Connor said Tatu will be sorely missed.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” O’Connor said. “She was such a happy person, and she did her work willingly and happily. She was a wonderful human being and a warm individual. There are not enough words of praise for Camelia.”

Checks for Tatu’s family are being accepted at Conejo Elementary.

Also, Mountain View Elementary has set up a trust at Chase Bank for Tatu’s son. Checks can be made payable to John Thomas Layton and include the account number 9424917586. Checks can be dropped off at any Chase Bank or sent to the school at 2925 Fletcher St., Simi Valley, CA 93065.

Memorial services are Saturday at the Rose Family Mortuary in Simi Valley. A viewing will be from 9 to 11 a.m., and the service will begin at 11 a.m.

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