Through the darkness of her baby’s unexpected death, Summer Reyes found light in the memory of his spirit.
She uses that light to guide her in creating a legacy for her son Gunner, who died suddenly on Sept. 16. He was 7 1/2 months old.
Inspired to help infants and toddlers in need — who would have been her son’s peers — Gunner’s Light Foundation was created with the support and encouragement of family, friends and local nonprofits.
In the office of Gunner’s Light Foundation, located at 8 First St. E., Suite 204, in Kalispell, Reyes sat down with her son, Roman Solarez, and foundation Community Outreach Specialist Rosalie Tozer, to share the goals of the organization — and memories of Gunner — through tears, smiles and laughter.
Following Gunner’s passing, people reached out to the family, providing emotional and monetary support. One day, Reyes sat down with her three adult children, who also include Bianca and Andrea Solarez, to think of a way to honor his memory.
“... the outpour of our community was amazing, and so many people wanted to help our family, we sat down as a family and I asked each of my children what is the one thing, what sticks out to you,” Reyes said as to how they could pay it forward to organizations that helped them in a time of need.
Solarez said one nonprofit that stood out was Coats for Kids and made a donation in his brother’s memory. The organization gives coats to children in need.
Wanting to seek out new ways to “keep Gunner’s light going,” the family saw a need they could fill in the Flathead Valley by collecting donations of clothing, outerwear, diapers and hygiene items such as baby wipes and shampoo for infants through 5-year-olds.
“We figured these would be Gunner’s peers; they would have been the children Gunner went to school with. He would have gotten to make an impact on them,” Reyes said.
“In a sense we are making that impact with them in Gunner’s name, so that he can still make an impact on our community even though he’s gone,” she said.
Reyes, who married young, was a teen mother, and, at one point later on, a single mother. Having experienced financial challenges at one time, Reyes wants to support parents who also struggle, whether it’s a one-time need or ongoing needs.
“At the end of the day, the kids didn’t ask to be put there. Something happened that’s caused these families to be this way. A lot of families don’t go and ask for help, why, because they’re scared,” she said, noting the stigma of asking for help and who or what it may involve.
Picking up several business cards from a stand, Reyes placed them on the desk, explaining the foundation logo — an elephant holding up a bright lantern. She explained that elephants were the decorative theme of his bedroom.
“The lantern is, because everything I’ve done up ’til this point I truly believe Gunner has led me here. His light has led my way,” Reyes said.
“When you turn these cards over — ” she said, doing just that, “ — you may not remember Gunner’s Foundation, you might not remember my name, or his name, but you’ll never forget a face, so on each card is a picture of Gunner.”
When asked to describe his personality, Reyes pulled up photos and videos on her computer of Gunner smiling, chattering, laughing and growling, which was part of his charm, whether grabbing his dad’s sandwich — he was food-driven, Solarez said — or his brother’s beard while play fighting.
“And Kado is Gunner’s dog; if you’ve seen Gunner you’ve seen Kado,” Reyes said, showing a video of her husband, Steven, helping Gunner try to stand up with the doting assistance of Kado, who placed his head down at Gunner’s feet at the slightest waver.
Reyes fondly remembered the effect Gunner had on other people.
“We would go to places and he would have his fan club,” she said. “He just had a light about him that drew people.”
On the Monday before Gunner passed away, she recalled leaving the doctor’s office with him and walking to an elevator where a lady was waiting.
“Gunner looked up at her and smiled like he normally did and she said, ‘Oh you sweet little baby. I really needed that. Thank you,’” Reyes said. “I wanted to turn to her and acknowledge her, ‘well, have a good day.’ The door opens and she had tears running down her face.”
In one of the first events Gunner’s Light Foundation participated in — Reyes, Solarez and Tozer saw the beginning of how the foundation could impact lives.
Solarez said he plans to put together a survey to find out what parents need, or feel is missing, in their communities.
Thinking about the possibilities of how the foundation may help families brought a wave of emotion over Reyes — hope for the future and the heartache of struggling to accept that she may never have the answer of why her healthy baby passed away. The cause of Gunner’s death was undetermined Reyes said.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. You never think it’s going to be you. I have three grown kids. The technology they have now for babies they didn’t have 26 years ago. Every room in my house had a monitor above a crib had a monitor. But these things still happen and people don’t talk about those things,” Reyes said wiping her tears with a tissue. “Never, ever, in a million years I thought this could happen and have no answers. I still have no answers. The reality of it is, one detective told me you might never have the answers and thats hard for me just to accept that.”
What Reyes has been looking into, and wants to bring awareness to, is the term “sudden unexpected infant death,” or SUIDS. It is an umbrella term that broadly covers sudden death in previously healthy infants where the cause is unknown or unexplained whether accidental or natural and includes the more well-known term “sudden infant death syndrome,” or SIDS according to sids.org.
“After doing research this is more common than we think, or talk about,” Reyes said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2017, there were 3,600 sudden unexpected infant deaths in the U.S. In Montana, between 2013 and 2017, the sudden unexpected infant death rate was 136.6 per 100,000 live births.
In a moment of deep grief and sorrow, Reyes said someone close to her reminded asked her not to do anything extreme, reminding her of the tangible connection she still had to her baby through videos and pictures where she could hear and see him.
“What sticks out to me the most is Gunner’s Foundation is tangible. I can hold onto this and I’ll never know what he was going to be as an adult, but I know how he can impact our community now as an infant — and his story — and that’s where we build a legacy, but we breathe life back into the future of our community with the kids that were his age,” she said.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.