Whether at the front of a classroom or in the garden, Maria Rybka was a teacher to her core. Those who loved her say she lived with purpose: to educate, inspire and demand the most from life. Following a lengthy illness, the longtime Hernando County educator and healthy lifestyle advocate died Nov. 30. She was 50. A graduate of Springstead High School, Rybka began her teaching career in the late 1990s, when she joined the staff at Westside Elementary as a third grade teacher. It was a summer day soon after that when teacher Cari O’Rourke started at the school. On the first trip to her classroom, she found Rybka standing in the doorway. "Her hair was still wet because she had rushed to be there to greet me," O’Rourke said. "That’s was Maria — so open to relationships, so ready to make everyone feel like they are the only one." The two became fast friends, and soon, were joined by Kim Paolillo. Inseparable, they called themselves the Three Musketeers. They started having weekly prayer breakfasts at Denny’s. Later would come weddings and holidays and each starting their own families. In 2000, Rybka was preparing to move into a teaching position at Chocachatti Elementary when she was tapped to become assistant principal at Eastside Elementary. She served in that role for six years until being promoted to Eastside principal in 2006. The next year, she took the top spot at Chocachatti, where she stayed until 2013, when she left to take over as administrator of Entirety K-12, a small private school aimed primarily at students with dyslexia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Superintendent Lori Romano this week noted Rybka’s integrity and kindness and said her legacy is one "built of grace, decency and an unrelenting love for children." Chocachatti principal Lara Silva, who took over the school when Rybka left, said Rybka’s vision was "strong and steadfast." "The thing about Maria is once a teacher, always a teacher," Silva said. "No matter what role she was in, she served as a gifted educator with so much grace and kindness." Rybka’s illness began just after starting at Chocachatti, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive lung disease and given only six years to live. That’s when she began what she called her "health journey." She turned down traditional medical treatments and instead became vegan, started juicing and using essential oils. Then eventually, after leaving public schools, Rybka opened a family garden and plant business, Simply More Plants, to educate others about how to transform their lives and health naturally. Her health improved, and she pushed past the six years she was given. Then, in September, the cancer came — first to her lungs, then spreading to her brain. She was given months to live. "The doctors wanted to give her medicine, but she didn’t believe in all that," said Rybka’s sister-in-law, Cyndi DeSimone, a retired nurse who took care of her until her death. "She wanted to do everything holistic and let her faith bring her through it." As the cancer spread, it first took her hearing, later her energy and eventually her life. But friends say Rybka’s unwavering love for Jesus Christ was no secret. At a vigil for her last week, Chocachatti staff lit candles laid out in the shape of a cross in her honor. Later, more than 100 friends and family sang the well-known hymn Amazing Grace together. "We give thanks that for Maria death has passed and she has entered the life you have prepared," a pastor prayed as the sniffling group huddled around. Then Rybka’s husband of 28 years, Bernie, told the crowd full of family, educators and friends not to worry. "She’s still around here," he said. "If you have her in your heart inside you, you’ll feel it." Friend and teacher Laura Kent said she and others often went to Rybka for advice, and time and time again, Rybka told them to "pray about it first." O’Rourke, who played the song For Good from the Broadway show Wicked at the vigil, said she called her late friend "Angel Maria." "I do believe I have been changed for the better," the song played. "Because I knew you, I have been changed for good." DeSimone, Bernie’s sister, said all the things people say about her sister-in-law are true. "She taught everyone a lot of good ... She taught us all how to be a better person," she said. "Maria definitely had wings waiting for her with open arms." ••• Rybka is survived by her husband, Bernie; daughters, Kailey and Janelle; sisters Florence Salamak and Susan Raimo; in-laws Elizabeth and Walter "Poppy" Rybka, Sr.; sister-in-law Cyndi DeSimone; brothers-in-law Walter Rybka and David Rybka; 17 nieces and nephews and many friends. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9 at Northcliffe Baptist Church, 10515 Northcliffe Blvd. in Spring Hill. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Simply More Plants, 9551 Purdy St.. The donations will be used to create a foundation in her memory to continue the education of healthy nutrition in Hernando County. Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.