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Cardinal Newman grad dies from mysterious illness at age 18

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A mysterious illness that killed an 18-year-old Healdsburg college student who returned home for summer has left family members and friends mourning her sudden death and searching for answers.

Claire Daniels, a 2017 Cardinal Newman grad who was passionate about helping girls gain confidence, died on June 9, a little over a week after she started experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Doctors have not determined the cause of her illness, mother Cheryl Gray said. The Sonoma County Department of Health ruled out the Russian River as a source of exposure after people close to Daniels expressed concerns.

Loved ones remember Daniels as a vivacious and active individual who loved to dance, socialize, ride horses and help others.

“She was a very bright light,” her mother said.

Daniels had just completed her freshman year at the University of Arizona, where she majored in information science and eSociety with a minor in business. She joined Delta Gamma and was looking forward to living in the sorority house again in the upcoming school year, Gray said.

She returned to her parents’ home in Healdsburg a few weeks before she died, and she had just started a summer retail job at Punch Clothing in Healdsburg, where Daniels enjoyed greeting customers at the store — many of whom she knew from growing up in town.

For her community-based senior project at Cardinal Newman, Daniels chose to help a group of girls at Village Charter School build self-esteem. She titled the project “Girl Power” and subsequently gave a TEDx talk about how adolescent girls suffer from lack of confidence.

Her talk touched upon inner strength and courage, and she shared a story about a female friend who was bullied and later died by suicide.

“No girl at any age should feel bad about themselves or their appearance. Society doesn’t realize the things they’re going through inside,” she said.

Cardinal Newman principal Graham Rutherford, who taught Daniels in a government class the summer before her senior year, remembered her as “someone who was very supportive of other people.”

Daniels was a cheerleader in high school, and she was an excellent tumbler, Rutherford recalled.

A few weeks before Daniels died, she visited Cardinal Newman with friends and caught up with teachers. She was doing well, and was relieved to have successfully completed her first year of college, Rutherford said.

There was a gathering last Wednesday for the Cardinal Newman class of 2017 to remember Daniels.

About 10 teachers and 50 students came and signed large sheets of support for her family.

“This was a place that valued her and she valued,” Rutherford said.

Daniels had a tight-knit group of friends from Cardinal Newman.

The day after she died, several friends went to a tattoo parlor and permanently etched Daniel’s yearbook signature onto their bodies. Adeline Greenleaf, 19, got Daniel’s signature tattooed just below her wrist.

“She had a lot more life to live. You would not think she would pass away,” Greenleaf said.

Claire Daniels is survived by her father, Stefan Daniels; mother Cheryl Gray; and stepfather Jon Gray.

“She made me proud every day. She was just an amazing daughter,” Cheryl Gray said. “She was so happy and so excited for her future. She was so excited to be home in Sonoma (County). She lived more life in 18 years than more people do in an entire lifetime.”

A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Friday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Healdsburg. Her mother said all friends are welcome.

Donations in Claire Daniels’ name can be sent to www.mercyfocusonhaiti.org/donate.

The group Mercy Focus on Haiti helps Haitians in need.

“That was something that was near and dear to Claire’s heart,” Gray said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216. or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.