"There wasn’t anyone more selfless than her," close friend Stephanie Cinque tells PEOPLE

By Rose Minutaglio
April 04, 2017 02:55 PM
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Friends and family of Caitlin Nelson, the 20-year-old Sacred Heart University student who died following a pancake-eating contest on campus, remember her as “a shining light in the community with a heart of gold.”

The college junior, of Clark, New Jersey, was competing in a Greek Life food-eating competition on March 30 when she began shaking uncontrollably and fell to the floor, according to local reports. She had consumed “several” pancakes and when officers arrived she was “unresponsive and not breathing,” PEOPLE confirms with the Fairfield Police Department.

Although an official cause of death has yet to be determined, Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara tells PEOPLE, “The lack of oxygen for that extended period of time caused irreversible damage, making it not survivable.”

Her organs will be donated, PEOPLE confirms.

“That’s exactly what Caitlin would have wanted, that’s just the type of selfless person she was,” close friend Stephanie Cinque tells PEOPLE. “She was a beautiful human being.

Nelson and Cinque worked closely together at the Newtown Resiliency Center, where the late college student volunteered mentoring children impacted by the tragic events of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings. Nelson, who experienced grave tragedy growing up, joined the organization as a way to help others experiencing similar grief.

Nelson’s father, James Nelson, was a Port Authority officer killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. He was helping evacuate people from the 27th floor of one of the Twin Towers when it collapsed.

Caitlin was 5 years old at the time of her father’s death.

“Jimmy’s last moments alive were spent helping people,” Robert Egbert, a spokesman for the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association tells PEOPLE. “Caitlin dying is another tragedy but it appears that she took the tragedy of what happened with her father and used that to help others… It tells you a lot about the type of person that she was. She had a lot of Jimmy in her and also had the guidance from Rosanne, her mom.”

Adds Cinque, who is in contact with Roseanne through Nelson’s boyfriend Jose Navas: “[Her family is] still in shock. They are just devastated. She was really loved.”

Nelson also attended America’s Camp, a sleepaway camp for children who lost a parent or sibling as a result of the attacks on September 11. After graduating from being a camper, Nelson later volunteered for the organization, helping younger kids cope with loss.

“She was the rock for many of the kids,” Jay Toporoff, a co-director of America’s Camp, tells PEOPLE. “Caitlin was somebody they could talk to. I saw somebody who was very realistic about what had happened and someone who was committed to the process of healing.

“Kids came running to her with their eyes open, they trusted her, and she created a connection with them that was priceless.”

Stephanie Cinque (left) with Caitlin Nelson at last year’s Newtown Resiliency Center gala
| Credit: Stephanie Cinque

When America’s Camp disbanded five years ago, she started working with the Newtown Resiliency Center, assisting young children — mostly girls — in dealing with similar grief.

Nelson was expected to attend a Newtown Resiliency Center gala as a volunteer with her boyfriend and mother on Friday.

“She was a shining star,” says Cinque. “It was a different tragedy, but Caitlin was able to relate and help others heal.”

The kids of The Newtown Resiliency Center created a tribute card for Caitlin
| Credit: Jay Toporoff

SHU held a service for Nelson, which was attended by thousands of students, faculty and staff.

“The service was followed by an impromptu candlelight vigil as community members consoled one another and offered prayers for Caitlin and her family and friends,” SHU spokesperson Deborah Noack tells PEOPLE in a statement. “The SHU flag has been lowered to half-staff in Caitlin’s memory.”

Adds University President John J. Petillo in a blog post. “Here at SHU, when one of us is hurt, we all hurt; when one of us excels, we all celebrate. Whether you knew Caitlin or not, you came together to express your love for her, your love for each other and your love for SHU.”

Nelson was a social work major at SHU and wanted to pursue a career working with children.

“There wasn’t anyone more selfless than her,” says Cinque. “She always had a smile, always there for the kids no matter what you asked of her she would do it and she did it with such grace and such love.”

Adds Toporoff: “We live by the quote at America’s Camp: ‘Tis better to light a candle, than curse the darkness’ — that is what Caitlin would want us to do.”

  • With reporting by Caitlin Keating