Pewaukee — It started as a hashtag and fundraiser, but now, a local mom is keeping the memory of her daughter alive through an apparel brand with an unlikely national following.
AngelsForAshlyn Inc. is an online apparel shop started by Pewaukee mom Shannon Flegel, whose 12-year-old daughter Ashlyn died in July. Ashlyn was hit by a car while riding her bike, and later died as a result of her injuries.
During Ashlyn's hospital stay, family and friends held fundraisers, prayer gatherings and vigils. One of the fundraisers involved selling T-shirts that read "#AngelsForAshlyn." A family friend, Leslie Baylor, created a Facebook group with the hashtag which posted updates on Ashlyn's condition.
A week after Ashlyn's funeral, a detective returned Ashlyn's phone to her mother. What she found would open her up to her daughter's passions, and a large following of children across the country interested in Ashlyn's story.
Sharing Ashlyn's story
Shannon Flegel opened up her daughter's phone and her social media accounts on Instagram and musical.ly (a video sharing app). She saw videos of her daughter lip-syncing to various songs in musical.ly, and had a private collection of songs in her account that she kept to herself.
"It was awesome," Flegel said about discovering the videos. "I started releasing them one at a time, and also her Instagram. I started posting photos of her and her friends, and goofy things she was doing in her room."
After releasing Ashlyn's videos to her friends, Flegel made the videos public so that other kids from Ashlyn's school could see them. After she made the photos public, the attention they received exploded, according to Flegel.
"She exploded into, I don't even know how many, thousands upon thousands of followers," Flegel said. "I don't know how it happened. She was on this musical.ly and kids from all these other states found out that she died, and that I was releasing these videos and pictures."
One day, a friend of Ashlyn's suggested to Flegel, based on the attention Ashlyn's videos and pictures were getting, that Flegel live-stream a video on musical.ly.
Live-streaming a video on musical.ly, also called making a live.ly, allows viewers to type questions and comments to the host of the video. Flegel was able to talk to kids from around the country who wanted to know more about Ashlyn.
"They wanted to hear stories about Ashlyn, and they wanted tours of her room," Flegel said. "They wanted to see all her journaling quotes and all the cool pictures she's colored... They were just so into it."
The viewers were also able to see Ashlyn's decorated grave and meet her friends.
The videos were so popular that after logging off one of the live.ly sessions, Flegel saw that 8,000 people had watched it.
Making the brand
During the live.ly chats, people started asking about the #AngelsForAshlyn T-shirts. At first, Flegel said "no" because Ashlyn had died, and the T-shirts were part of a fundraiser while she was in the hospital.
However, the viewers insisted on having the shirts. So Flegel asked her sister if she could keep making the shirts and ship them out for people to buy. Her sister agreed, and the two opened an Etsy account (a website that hosts online stores). Flegel started making large quantities of T-shirts and sending them all over the country.
When that became too much, Flegel and her sister decided to outsource the production and sales to an embroidering company. They incorporated the company in November 2016. Now, Flegel's company orders wholesale.
When AngelsForAshlyn incorporated, Flegel had a pizza party and live-streamed it, showing off the shirts and apparel with the hashtag.
"It's gotten really big. She's got an online following," Flegel said.
"I think it speaks a lot to who she was," Baylor said. "She was just a very bright light in our community, and to see her bright light continue, not only here in Pewaukee, but throughout the country, is just an amazing thing."
Since becoming an official brand, Flegel hosted a Meet and Greet on Dec. 17, 2016, at Moe's Southwest Grill on Capitol Drive to meet the children who had supported her.
AngelsForAshlyn holds a special place in the Pewaukee community, including Aspire Dance Studio, where Ashlyn danced. Ashlyn performed often with the group, and studio director Mandy Carlisle said that many of her students still bring up Ashlyn, even wearing AngelsForAshlyn-branded clothing.
At the studio's annual Christmas party, where the dancers held an ornament exchange, received fun socks and took pictures, dancers recalled memories of Ashlyn at the previous year's event.
"Everyone was talking about last year, bringing up the photos of... Ashlyn in the circle and making fun faces with the socks on and being kind of crazy goofy" Carlisle said.
Carlisle also remembered how Ashlyn carried herself in the program through her smile, attitude and work ethic. Carlisle thinks that Flegel's efforts are amazing, and believes that the brand can be an inspiration for young girls like Ashlyn.
"If she can even just impart even a little bit of that joy and even a little bit of that positive hope for the future for any young girl, I think this brand would be great to offer that," Carlisle said.
"To be able to have a good head on your shoulders and look forward to every single day, and what challenges and unexpected things [it] may bring, but to be able to approach it always with a smile and always with the best intentions and best hopes for the future — I think that's how [Ashlyn] was every day, and I saw that when she danced in her classes."
AngelsForAshlyn apparel can be purchased at www.etsy.com/shop/angelsforashlyn.