Community organizes spontaneous Sunday night tribute
DANSVILLE — In the wake of a great tragedy, the Dansville community has come together to process the memories and love that these young people left behind.
On July 27 the community awoke in the early morning to the devastating news that four teens had lost their lives, and another was injured. The accident occurred in the Town of Burns around 4:30 a.m. at a T-intersection of county Route 13C and County Road 13, which claimed the lives of driver Rebecca L. Earner, 16, of Dansville, and three passengers, Ambra Eddleton, 16, Justin Carpenter, 14, and Kyrstin Wolfanger, 14, all of Dansville. The front-seat passenger Kelsi Bird, 16, of Dansville survived the accident and is in stable condition at Strong Memorial Hospital.
Dansville Central School held a counseling session for students, teachers, staff, and family after the accident Sunday to help process the grief.
The community gathered at Babcock Park later in the evening Sunday to honor the young lives lost. A community group page had been made on Facebook by Tina Peaty, dubbed “Dansville Strong," to help organize events like this for the community.
Profile images have been appearing on social media as well; one being a red and black ribbon “Dansville Stand Together” and the other being the ribbon with an angel and the names of the teens. The first made by Tina Peaty and the second made by Doug Travis.
Dansville Strong held its first event at Babcock Park Sunday evening, allowing students and others to write down their memories in chalk, create a message board for Kelsi, cover a bench in messages for the lives lost, and gather at night for the release of lanterns.
The idea for the event came from Dansville students.
“The students came to me with an idea, and I made it happen. They wanted to be able to release their pain without judgment and fear. The community has helped out a lot with this tribute. They provided the chalk, water, materials, and support,” Peaty said. “We have a lot of people showing up. They might not all want to draw, but we have provided a safe place for them. We have cards for Kelsi, glow sticks to light up for each student to be with us, and each one will get a lantern in their honor to be sent off at night.”
Peaty said she wanted this event to help the community heal after suffering such terrible loss.
“Everyone wants to do something to help in some way. I just hope that this helps the community heal. This is an easy way for all of us to come together at the park,” Peaty said. “I know there are Go Fund Me pages out there for each child, and the families need help for the funeral expenses. I know all the students needed this tribute tonight.”
DHS Superintendent Paul Alioto said he was very impressed with how fast the community came together.
“I am so impressed with the turnout. We can plan all these events and activities for kids, but sometimes the kids need this kind of organic creation,” he said. “It breaks me up to walk around and read each one of their chalk memories. Dansville Strong … We needed it this time. I am really impressed that the community organized this so quickly.”
Kaylee Walker-Lohrmann, owner K’s Canine Training Services, brought several therapy dogs for the students at the tribute.
“I wanted to bring some therapy dogs over after I saw the post about this event. I am at the school all the time working with the students,” she said. “I think the whole community really came together like they always do. It is nice to see the parents, students, organizations, Dansville Police Department, teachers, coaches, and everyone here for one another.”
Lohrmann said the dogs were helping the students heal at the event.
“The kids are coming over and petting the dogs. It is good to see smiles among the sadness. I have been seeing people coming all night. There are hundreds of people here,” she said.
Madison Moore, a recent Dansville graduate, said she felt led to come down to the park to be there for the other students in this hard time.
“I am doing angel wings for all of the ones who died. I only knew Becca, but it is very sad. I wanted to be here to help the others,” she said. “This is the first time I have ever done something like this. I brought my own chalk but had to use the chalk they provided too. I have done more paintings and murals at school, but never did any chalk art like this.
“I am glad the community has come together. It is heartbreaking to see all these people cry, but joyful to see them all together. I am really empathetic for all these people,” Moore continued.
Jasmine Helles was best friends with Rebbeca “Becca” Earner for many years. She came down to share their moment in chalk memories.
“Becca would always doodle in class. She hated art class, but she always loved doing art everywhere else. She would always draw these irregular hearts in her notebooks,” she said.
Beth Sick, Dansville Jr. Mustangs president, opened up the little league stand for the event and donated a bench for the students to put messages on that will be at the park forever.
“Kyrstin (Wolfanger) was a cheerleader for eight years. I just started about three years ago as the president. That is the main reason I am here tonight is for the kids. I wanted to give them a person to talk to about this. I love that the whole community can take these kids into our arms. It makes my heart sing that everyone is here to help these kids,” Sick said. “I wanted to give them a picnic bench to write messages on, so that they could have a safe place to come to think. It will stay here at Babcock Park forever as a memory for these kids. They will all have a safe place to come.”
A light had been placed on top of the hill overlooking the village as you go up Route 256. It reads Dansville Strong, the initials of the victims, the date of accident, Never Forgotten, and Stay Strong in green for Kelsi. It will be kept up on the hill for a few nights to show support in this terrible tragedy.
The lanterns went off with each family lighting one for their child who was lost in the fatal accident. The community sat quietly on the grass as the lanterns lifted in the sky up towards the heavens.
Another accident earlier in the week claimed the life of Dansville graduate Emilee Marie Rawleigh, 21, of Atlanta. She was part of the tribute as well. On July 23 at about 10:30 p.m. another young person was killed when the car drove off County Road 36 near Sawdust Road. A 17-year-old from Wayland was driving and survived.
John Rawleigh, Emillee’s father, gave a heart wrenching eulogy for his daughter. It has been shared many times on social media.
“As we gather here today to celebrate the life of Emilee, I would like to share some memories. First, was Em very religious? Hell no. Am I very religious? Hell no. Do I believe her life was an inspiration? Yes! Do I believe her memory will live on forever? Yes! Em’s smile would light up a room and she would help anyone out who needed a friend. She never judged anyone. Her dream after graduation was to own a German Shepard farm,” he said. “Em was my princess. One of my beautiful girls. Was … and is gone now because of poor choices! I would like each and every one of you to raise your hand if you made a poor choice in life. I know I have! Take a moment to think. Was your poor choice due to alcohol, drugs, distracted driving?
“Did you not wear a seatbelt? Did you snapchat, text, smoke or vape while driving? I bet you said, 'It won’t happen to me. It won’t happen to us.' We have done this before! We did it yesterday and last week,” John continued. “Em would be with us today if she didn’t have one or two too many drinks. Is it really worth it, guys and gals? To chance it and say 'OK, I will be OK. Nothing is going to happen.' Does Emilee have the same chances as all of us do today? To walk out of here and say was it really worth it? No, she doesn’t. But you do. You all have more chances and choices that she will never have again. How many more chances do you have to take before they run out?
“I want each and every one of you to honor her life and memory so that her death is not meaningless, just a number, or a story you read on social media, but an inspiration for change. And maybe save the life of a friend that is sitting next to you. Hold your friends accountable. Wear a seatbelt, put the phone down, don’t allow open containers in your car, pull the vehicle over, call someone. These are choices that are still in the power of your life to make. Honor her memory. Thank you for your support and the opportunity to celebrate the life of our daughter,” John concluded.