Memorial for Sandra Cantu was held Monday. She would have been 9 years old.
TRACY, CA -- The family of Sandra Cantu welcomed hundreds of family, friends and strangers to a special gathering on what would have been the child's 9th birthday.
As many of those who gathered at Sandra's former elementary school wiped away tears, Cantu's aunt recalled her niece's loving nature. "Sandra was always smiling. Looking through pictures of her, you saw that she was always smiling in every single one of them," said Angie Chavez.
SLIDESHOW: Cantu's Birthday Celebration
The 8-year-old girl disappeared last March from her family's mobile home park, and her body was found ten days later in a suitcase that had been dumped in an irrigation pond.
A neighbor and Sunday school teacher, Melissa Huckaby, has been accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering the child, and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Cantu's family said they want to remember Sandra's happy spirit. "Sandra was daring. Whenever she was on a ride, she would have her hands up in the air, as if to say, mom, look, no hands," said Chavez.
At the gathering, Sandra was remembered in song and pictures. Many who were gathered had helped in the search for Sandra within hours of her disappearance. "Knocking on doors and passing our flyers. It really touched us, how this community pulled together," said Tracy resident Michele Vinyard.
Vinyard's daughter was Sandra's preschool teacher. "Just the sadness that an innocent life is taken and she had so much life to still give to the world. But she's still giving to us now, even after she's gone," said Leeann Vinyard.
Sandra's mother, Maria Chavez, said the community's support has helped her through the trauma from the very beginning. "A big support. A big support. All their prayers. It helped a lot," she said.
Sandra's aunt said the little girl with an infectious smile had left the community a legacy of life and love. "That's everything that encompasses what Sandra was about. And that's exactly what she would have wanted us to do. To live, love, laugh and be happy," Chavez said.
At the end of the celebration, those gathered stepped outside into a chill wind and released glowing balloons into the night sky. Someone called out, "Happy birthday, baby."
Huckaby is due in court on March 29 for another hearing. Her trial is set to begin on October 18.