Memorial garden honors community's lost children

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comMay 4, 2014 

More than 80 friends, families and peers gathered Sunday at The Children's Memorial Garden at Hilton Head Island Hospital to remember 13 children the community has lost in recent years.

Among those honored were Cory Rocha, 18, and Cesar Herrera, 17 -- both Hilton Head Island High School seniors who were killed in a car wreck March 28.

During a brief ceremony Sunday, the families of those students and the other children gathered to honor those lost with engraved bricks in the center of the garden, just outside the hospital's main entrance.

Although those families are still gripped by grief, the garden symbolizes the support they can now find in one another, said Amy Metzger, a garden co-founder.

"We've had a really tough year here," she said through tears. "But we do have a bond that we share, and you're not alone."

Now is a time to look forward in spite of the grief, Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan urged.

"I can't empathize," O'Nan said. "There's nothing that comes from my heart or my head that can make this easier."

However, O'Nan found inspiration in her 9-year-old son and one of her 4-year-old daughters, who assured her that those still alive are surrounded by the angels of those lost, and that survivors should "let it go" and move forward, she said.

"My 4-year-old's singing 'Let It Go' from the movie 'Frozen' ... and she looks like an angel," O'Nan said of the popular Disney movie. "And I thought, 'Maybe we allow the angels to be angels.'

"I really don't want to dwell on the past," she continued. "I want to look to the future because God is holding our hands and we are all angels."

Two other Hilton Head High students were injured in the March 28 wreck: Ramon Morales, 17, and Michelle Alvares, 16. The four students were on their way to school when the car drove off Dillon Road, struck a culvert, went airborne and hit a tree.

Morales and Alvares were treated at Savannah's Memorial University Medical Center. Their conditions were not available Sunday.

The S.C. Highway Patrol is investigating the accident. Attempts to reach troopers Sunday were unsuccessful, but in mid-April, Senior Trooper Hannah Wimberly said the investigation could take several weeks.

The Hilton Head community will continue to honor Rocha, Herrera and their families, O'Nan said. Several thousand dollars have already been raised to help the families, and the school and students are planning more fundraisers, she said.

Families in the Beaufort County School District are also mourning the loss of 12-year-old Celeste Wills, a Robert Smalls Middle School sixth-grader whose death Wednesday has been ruled a suicide.

The tragedy of a suicide can be particularly painful for families, said Betsy Brown, of Hilton Head. Brown spoke Sunday to remember her granddaughter, Carol Anne Brown, who took her own life five years ago at 19 years old.

The pain "never stops, does it?" Betsy Brown said.

Brown's family has turned the tragedy into a call to action to better identify the signs of bipolar disorder and has founded the website www.bipolaraware.org.

In the same way that the memorial garden and the Browns' website have created positive responses to tragedy, Brown said she hopes those affected by Wills' death can also find healing.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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