Rachel D'Avino

Rachel D'Avino, one of the victims of the Sandy Hill shooting. (Courtesy/Christine Carmody, Courtesy/Christine Carmody / December 16, 2012)

The stack of photographs, nearly a foot high, captures Rachel D'Avino in all her buoyant glory.

There she is, dark hair and broad smile, striking a silly pose in dress-up clothes, or thrusting her arm around her cousin, her big personality shining through every snapshot.

"She always stood out," recalled her aunt, Christine Carmody. "She had the neatest sense of humor and would come up with the funnest stuff. She did everything to the max."

Like the elaborate cakes she loved to bake for her friends and for her boyfriend, Tony Cerritelli, and the toga parties and ugly-sweater parties she used to organize.

D'Avino was a hugger with a flair for drama. As a kid, she would act out scenes from movies. Her passions were karate, photography and her menagerie of animals — she was drawn to dogs, frogs, bunnies, birds or anything else with scales, feathers or fur.

But behind the exuberance was unrelenting determination and a clear focus. D'Avino struggled with a learning disability in childhood, but she overcame it, said her aunt, and went on to earn advanced degrees. "She was very goal-oriented,'' Carmody said. "If she said she was going to do something, it would get done. She got a lot of her drive from her mom.''

D'Avino was a behavioral therapist; she worked with children on the autism spectrum. "It wasn't just a job,'' Carmody said. "It was her life."

At 29, and close to completing her education, D'Avino had recently landed a temporary job at Sandy Hook Elementary School, about a half-hour's drive from her home in Bethlehem. She was supposed to start in early December, but she fell ill with the flu, Carmody said, so her start date was pushed back to Wednesday, Dec. 12.

That night, D'Avino and her fiancé went to their friend Lia Greenley's house in New Britain. They decided to make a time capsule because, "well, it was 12-12-12 and it was a nerdy thing to do," Greenley said.

D'Avino wrote a note to future Americans. It read, in part, "it is my DREAM that you know my name as a leader in behavior analysis for children and adults with autism. However, I will be thrilled if I make a few people have an easier, more enjoyable life."

She signed the message Rachel Marie D'Avino, MS.

Two days later, a gunman shot his way into the school, killing her and five other educators, along with 20 children. D'Avino was so new that her name did not appear on any official school rosters.

Doing What She Was Meant To Do

D'Avino was born in Waterbury. Her mother, Mary, was one of 10 children from a large Irish-American family. Her father, Ralph, was Italian, and she felt a strong pull toward his heritage.

Even as a child, her aunt said, Rachel had a habit of talking with her hands. An accomplished cook, she loved making tomato sauce with her Italian grandmother. "She always identified as Italian until St. Patrick's Day. Then the Irish part was talked about,'' said Carmody, who has been informally designated the family spokeswoman.

D'Avino attended St. Margaret's-McTernan School in Waterbury, where her kindergarten teacher, Marion Rose Bouffard, remembered her as "a wonderful little girl, very warm and very gentle."

Bouffard said she was not surprised that D'Avino became a teacher. "She was a very giving little girl,'' she said.

Even though she hadn't seen D'Avino in almost 25 years, Bouffard was heartbroken when she realized that one of her former students was among those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. "When you're a teacher," Bouffard said, "those kids are your kids forever."

That's a sentiment that D'Avino understood. Her job working with autistic children was a demanding one, but it didn't end when the bell rang and classes were over. D'Avino was known for visiting her pupils after school and on weekends, pulling out all the stops to reach children for whom emotional connections don't come easy.

Lissa Lovetere Stone met D'Avino about six years ago; the circumstances were less than optimal. Lovetere Stone's son, 3 at the time, had just been diagnosed with autism and he was assigned a young aide who only recently had graduated from college.