Wilmette, Community

In Tribute: ‘Best life’ founder Erika Hlavacek leaves everlasting impact

Remembered as a tireless fundraiser, passionate advocate and loving wife, mother and friend,  Erika Hlavacek, of Wilmette, died on April 27 from complications caused by Stage IV lung cancer. She was 47. 

Many knew Hlavacek as the founder of yEAHbestlife, a local nonprofit that sold “Best Life” apparel to raise funds in support of lung cancer research and awareness.

A professional pilot, Hlavacek was also integral in the foundation of a child-focused nonprofit, Pickles Group, as well as a champion for special-needs education and a contributor throughout the community. 

“​​All of us who were lucky enough to have Erika in our lives knew her to be smart, funny, loud, easy to laughter, fun, outgoing, tenacious, a thorn in the side of anyone not doing things the right way, and an amazingly loving mother, wife, sister and daughter,” her husband Jeff Hlavacek wrote in her obituary. “She leaves an outsized void in the world and is so greatly missed.

A visitation will take place from 4-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 4, at Donnellan Family Funeral Home, 10045 Skokie Blvd in Skokie. A funeral Mass is set for noon on Wednesday, May 4, at Saints Joseph & Francis Xavier Church, 1747 Lake Ave., Wilmette. The service will also be live-streamed online.

Erika Hlavacek was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 and began fighting for research and awareness of the disease.

Erika Arquilla Hlavacek was born to parents Anna and Antonio Arquilla on April 15, 1975, in Chicago and grew up in the northwest suburb of Wood Dale. 

After graduating from Fenton High School, where she was homecoming queen, Jeff Hlavacek wrote, Erika Hlavacek attended Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, and studied to become a pilot. 

While working for Chicago Express Airlines, she met her future husband, Jeff. Erika then became a pilot for Southwest Airlines, and she and Jeff married in 2003. 

The couple has two children, Francesca and Antonio, and they moved to Wilmette in 2014. 

“Her children loved the town and the community welcomed them with open arms,” Jeff wrote. “She quickly became a fixture in the community through her children’s school. Her legacy carries on at McKenzie Elementary through RED (Respect Every Difference) week and spectacular hip-hop dancing in the variety show.”

The Hlavaceks living their “Best Life.”

In 2017, Erika Hlavacek was admitted to the hospital with an unrelenting cough and unbearable back pain, according to previous reporting from The Record. She was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and began taking innovative cancer-fighting treatments, which she credited for keeping her alive. 

“I’m alive because of research,” she told The Record in 2021. 

The experience led her to pursue life to its fullest and found the local nonprofit yEAHbestlife, which uses gear like T-shirts and hats to spread the message that “Time is a gift. We need to make the most out of every day,” she said.

The organization has so far raised more than $30,000 for the fight against lung cancer. 

In 2019, Jeff Hlavacek was also diagnosed with cancer, and the couple united with locals fighting similar battles to form Pickles Group, a support organization that provides resources and peers for children whose parents have cancer. 

Erika Hlavacek (second from right) with friends that helped inspire yEAHbestlife.

According to a Facebook post from Pickles Group, the nonprofit “simply would not exist without Erika, her husband Jeff and their two wonderful kids, Francesca and Antonio, both of whom are true leaders of our youth programming.”

“As a lung-cancer-patient advocate, a neighbor, and friend, Erika lived her best life out loud with such a presence – full of fierceness, honesty, and love,” wrote Erin Smith, fellow Pickles Group founding parent. “ … We will all carry the way she touched our hearts forever as we work to live out her legacy alongside Jeff, Francesca, and Antonio.”

Family is asking that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to yEAHbestlife.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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