When the blue plastic cover rippled down off the new, large safety billboard Saturday near the intersection of Highways FF and W at and revealed the beaming smile of , I admittedly teared up even though I was focused on taking photos of the unveiling and the crowds' reactions.
It was a split second of both joy and pain.
Seeing Kaela's face, I was immediately transported back to that November day when , and I was on the scene of the accident. Missouri Highway patrol officers would not let media near the scene, but I was there when a SUV from the accident was hauled away.
As a photojournalist, I snapped a shot, and was one of the few—if not the only media representative—to get a first, upclose glimpse of the vehicle. As a person, I felt sure the driver of that vehicle probably was not alive. The photographer in me studied the details of my photos. The human thread in me stood frozen, not wanting to look at them.
Rumors were that the person driving the vehicle was from out of town, due to the out-of-state license plates identified. That was bad enough to think about, but made the accident a bit easier to treat with a certain intellectual distance. After a little while, however, I learned the victim was one of our own, a young graduate whose vehicle crossed the center line around a curve on Highway FF near Eureka on a rainy morning and hit a bus head-on. The impact of the development cut deep, including with me.
I cried then and I cried Saturday; one of the by-products of being a community journalist.
This time, on Saturday, I cried with Kaela's dad, Shawn, and her aunt, Sabrina.
They both confided various stories about how difficult it is to pass by the same highway every day and have to confront those heart-wrenching memories. But they also both said they thank God for the strength to heal, and they now believe God had a bigger plan for what began as a tragedy.
It was bad enough to lose Kaela at only 20 years old.
But Eureka then lost another community leader, , in a single-auto accident on the same highway. Karen's children, Bain and Bailey, were present at the Saturday event as well that honored their mother and Kaela. I got to speak with Bain, who now is attending . He glanced away many times during our conversation, and I could tell he was torn. It was painful to be there, but he wanted to do right by his mother as we stood inside the , which is where Karen used to lead the children's choir. (Come back to Eureka-Wildwood Patch to read about his perspective.)
The variety of volunteers who came to honor both Kaela and Karen Saturday were impressive—all ages were present. Kaela's family created a nonprofit organization called One Curve At A Time to dedicate themselves to building awareness about and making changes to dangerous roads and curves.
See Patch article:
The organization is a grassroots effort now working with local law enforcement officials to enhance accountability for safe driving; for more current details about how to support the cause, CLICK HERE.
Saturday, I kept coming back to the thought that Kaela and Karen were smiling as 70-plus volunteers witnessed the unveiling of a new safety billboard and then cleaned up roadway trash between Missouri Route 109 outside of Eureka along Highway FF into northwestern Jefferson County.
Eureka community support was strong and purposeful, and no doubt, is helping one person at a time, one curve at a time. Over the past few months, two memorial signs for Karen and Kaela were erected along Highway FF. The signs help us to remember them, but it was evident Saturday that we don't need much prompting—Karen and Kaela are close by in our hearts.