LeeAnne Horton DiMatteo sat front row at Margate's Fashion by the Beach event recently, a giant butterfly necklace adorning her neck - a symbol of rebirth. The mother sat proudly, among a large crowd of family and friends, to celebrate the life and ongoing aspirations of her daughter, Shaina Horton.
Those touched by the Somers Point native's story entered the large white tents on the brisk October evening, dressed in their finest. They were there to enjoy local fashions, music, auctions, food and most importantly, to remember the young mother who was 26 when she died.
"If my daughters grow up to be like Shaina, then I have done my job," said the emcee of the night, John Heist.
The resident of Northfield worked alongside Horton as a board member for Ocean City's Community Art Projects, a nonprofit initiative that works to bring murals and other public art to the resort town.
Horton had been a participant and advocate of the arts, explained her mother, pointing to a framed piece of childhood artwork signed "SH." Horton graduated from Philadelphia University in 2007 with a degree in interior design and architectural studies.
Horton was an employee of Ocean City's Accent Gallery and the designer of Teen Space, a spot for teens at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.
She gave birth to a healthy girl, Zoe Anne Palermo, in April 2010. Soon after, she received a diagnosis of choriocarcinoma, a rare form of cancer involving placental cells. After battling the disease for nine months in Cooper University Hospital, she died in January 2012.
Christina Hunter, Cooper's oncology nurse and clinical educator, spoke of Horton as an inspiring patient, and Horton's mother as a figure of unyielding support.
"Shaina was an artist, she knew the unit was dated," Hunter said.
A portion of the proceeds from the night went toward Horton's vision for a life-promoting atmosphere for cancer patients at Cooper. The Shaina Horton Mosaic Project is already under way. Horton believed in art therapy, Hunter explained.
A large portion of ticket sales also are to go into a college fund for Zoe, who is now 2 years old.
With the help of Cookie Till, of Horton's favorite restaurant, Steve and Cookie's by the Bay in Margate, and a group of dedicated committee members, the night of local fashions modeled by nearly 20 locals became a dedication for Horton.
"We have never done anything like this before. … People are using creativity and with the thought in mind of trying to help somebody's family that we can all relate to. It's been a good process, especially due to her friends that have been so helpful," the restaurant owner said.
Event sponsor and coordinator Lindsy Casey, of Lindsy James Salon and Color Studio, said Zoe always had a friend in Casey's own daughter, born within months of Zoe.
"Shaina had a natural light and beauty about her … She contacted me after I had my daughter and mentioned that she wanted them to be friends. As a mother, Shaina's story hit home for me and deeply moved me to want to celebrate her life," Casey said.
Casey's salon is located on the 900 block of Asbury Avenue in Ocean City, within walking distance of Horton's home, which she shared with Zoe's father, Cliff Palermo.
"We were both pregnant, a couple months apart … going through the same thing. This story touched me to want to do something this massive," she continued.
After visiting New York Fashion Week with manager Danielle Rahter, Casey knew the theme of the fundraiser.
"(Shaina) was so creative in the arts … this was fitting," Casey said.
Committee member Liz Lawler, of Upper Township, also frequented Casey's salon and instantly connected with Horton.
"We were on the same (pregnancy) schedule," Lawler said at the event. "She was an amazing person, just a light. She glowed."
Fashions were provided by vendors including 7th Street Surf Shop, Heritage, Knit Wit, Free People of Philadelphia, Skirt, Colette, E Next Door, Bellissima and Flying Carp. Silent and Chinese auction gifts ranged from a football jersey signed by Philadelphia Eagles player Michael Vick to a donated surfboard collaged with sea glass and jewels.
Applause ended the show as LeeAnne and Horton's younger brother Keven, 26, walked the runway, holding a framed black and white photograph of Horton and baby Zoe.
Keven was all smiles. He said earlier, "She made everyone smile when she walked into the room."
To make a donation toward Cooper Hospital and Zoe's college fund, checks may be made payable to "Work in Progress" and sent to 945 Asbury Ave. Ocean City, NJ 08226.
Contact Caitlin Honan: