ST.PETERSBURG — Erin Kitzinger, a filmmaker and yoga instructor, always marched to the beat of her own drum.
"Even from an early age she never followed the crowd," her mother, Linda Zweifel, said. "She always wanted to do the right thing."
Ms. Kitzinger, 36, died last month after close to a yearlong battle with cancer. Her friends and family remembered her for her intense loyalty and caring nature.
Ms.Kitzinger was born in Tampa and moved to St. Petersburg, where she attended Childs Park and was part of the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School.
She attended the University of Central Florida, where she studied film and psychology and then became a part of its first class of a Master of Fine Arts program in film, where she quickly made several lifelong friends.
Andrew Gay, who now teaches film at Southern Oregon University, said he first met Ms. Kitzinger through a mutual friend a year older than him who was at UCF.
"The next year when I started, Erin really went out of her way to check on me and make me feel welcome and make sure I was adjusting well," Gay said. "We became very close very quickly. ... She was really like a sister to me."
The two worked on many projects together and he produced the capstone film she directed.
"When I started producing my own stuff, she was always someone I wanted to be on set with me," he said.
Ms. Kitzinger's own films won her invitations to a women's leadership conference in Dubai, and one, Hope For a Thorn, won awards from the Gasparilla International Film Festival, La Femme International Film Festival Award and Sarasota Film Festival.
"She was very passionate about women's stories and women's experiences," Gay said. "Looking back at all her short films and her feature films, they all sort of dealt with a certain loneliness that maybe Erin saw with a lot of women, the burden that society creates that loneliness for women."
After graduating from UCF, Ms. Kitzinger moved back to St. Petersburg for a year before moving to Chicago for four and a half years where she worked as a freelance editor.
She wanted a taste of the big city life, her mother said, but decided to come back to St. Petersburg.
David Jones, a musician based in Canada who wrote the music for some of Ms. Kitzinger's films, said he was impressed with the insightfulness of her work.
"She was comfortable with the idea of exposing, I don't want to say dark, but the unusual side of things," he said. "That idea combined with a really good eye and a really excellent way of depicting it. Some of her films are really quite beautiful. She seemed to have that capability as a running consistency in her work."
Though they mostly stayed in touch online, Jones said he was in awe of how open she was to making connections.
Once, when he was about to meet her, he saw her crossing the road and stopping to chat with someone. He asked her if she'd run into a friend.
"She said 'oh, no,'" he said. "But the way she was talking … she was just so open and kind. ...I think her personality came out in her work. That openness came out into what she was able to communicate in her movies."
Her father, Paul Kitzinger, remembered her as a creative kid who loved watching movies and reading.
The family had season tickets each year to the University of Florida football games, but it was only later in life did she develop an actual interest in watching the game. Paul Kitzinger said he remembered his daughter bringing books with her and reading through the entire game since the time she was in the third or fourth grade.
Her love for books stayed with her even later in life.
She and some friends once maintained a website where they committed to reading 50 books a year and blogging about each.
Kelly Kirschner, vice president and dean of the division of Executive and Continuing Education at Eckerd College, where Ms. Kitzinger worked as Director for Annual Giving in the advancement department, dated Ms. Kitzinger for a year and a half. Kirschner said he thought Ms. Kitzinger's quick wit and quips came from her love for books.
He'd met her at an Eckerd College function and later got to know her better through a weekly yoga and meditation program she started on campus with the campus chaplain. Ms. Kitzinger was also involved in the Tampa Bay yoga community.
"I was immediately struck by her radiant beauty, not just on the outside, but on the inside," he said. "Part of her beauty is that she's an incredibly creative individual and one of the most well-read people I've ever known. ... In the year she fought cancer, none of that beauty waned or wavered."
Kitzinger never felt sorry for herself, he said, and took to making art of her cancer treatment, creating photo shoots about finding comfort in a new body after she shaved her head and underwent a double mastectomy.
Paul Kitzinger said that after her death, the family learned of many women who had recently been diagnosed with cancer whom Ms. Kitzinger had reached out to and comforted, even in her final days.
Libby Carnahan had met Ms. Kitzinger about six or seven years ago through a mutual friend and had seen her at various events over the years.
Carnahan was diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks after Kitzinger.
Kitzinger messaged Carnahan on Facebook after learning of her diagnoses from the mutual friend and the two began texting each other daily through chemotherapy and radiation.
"You can't just talk about cancer to people who have never had cancer as much as other people want to help and empathize," Carnahan said.
She and Kitzinger both found comfort and community in Instagram, she said, and Kitzinger created an account where she chronicled her battle with cancer and connected with other women with similar diagnoses.
"She was incredibly open and honest and and very caring," Carnahan said. "She cared about other people. ...A lot of women are not happy about how breast cancer has been branded. People need to feel open and honest."
Carly Mertz, who met Ms. Kitzinger in yoga teacher training, said her greatest strength was her vulnerability.
"She was such a light in this world that can seem so dark at times," Mertz said.
On her 36th birthday in July after finishing radiation, Kitzinger posted a photo of herself from the year before.
"I'm not that person anymore, and I never will be again," she wrote. "In some ways, that's sad. I've lost a lot in the past year: my breasts, my hair, my ability to bear children, my naive sense of security in my health and the promise of a long life. But I've gained so much more than I've lost … I've also allowed myself to become more vulnerable and open. I know the depths of my community. I understand love more than ever before. I know that nothing is guaranteed, and, no matter how much you might plan, the universe can throw you curveballs anytime. Life is a gift. However much time we have, all that matters is what we do with it."
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org or . Follow @divyadivyadivya.