August 20, 2012

In Alvord, grief over teen deaths brings town together

Small Wise County town bears "an abundance of grief" after the deaths of five teenagers in four incidents in 21 months.

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ALVORD -- On a warm August night, a small caravan of vans and cars rolled into this small Wise County town.

About 50 teenagers from Community Church in Decatur climbed out and gathered at the center of Alvord, near the cafe and library.

Curious youths from the nearby First Baptist Church of Alvord wandered out to meet them. An associate youth pastor from Decatur stood before the teens and announced the reason behind the impromptu visit.

A prayer for the people of Alvord ... he began.

If ever this community has needed a prayer, it is now. Since November 2010, five teenagers have died in four separate incidents, a staggering chain of tragedies in only 21 months for a city of 1,300 and a high school with 200 students.

Incoming freshmen at Alvord High School, who should be enjoying a carefree summer, have twice tearfully released balloons and lit lanterns at memorials for two classmates struck and killed by trains less than one month apart.

Mournful YouTube videos created by friends memorialize three other students killed in car wrecks.

"I've heard people say that the good Lord isn't going to give you so much that you can't deal with it," said Wise County Sheriff David Walker. "But he sure is testing everyone over in Alvord."

Residents of the town northwest of Decatur say the heartache has brought the community together and stirred compassion across Wise County. At a recent fundraiser for the family of Cheyenne Dollins, 14, who was struck and killed by a train, people from Decatur, Bridgeport, Paradise, Chico and elsewhere poured into the school.

The one-night silent auction and spaghetti dinner raised $10,000.

"The entire county has really embraced us," said Charlotte Fitzgerald, a member of the Alvord Youth Sports Association. "It really feels like, in these times of tragedy, we all come together as one for these families and the children who have lost friends."

The tragedies also have spurred change.

Eva Czerniak, whose daughter, Samantha Rogers, died in a 2010 traffic accident in Denton County, petitioned the state to widen the stretch of U.S. 380 where the wreck occurred to make it safer. Ground was broken on the construction project this month.

She also spearheaded the creation of a grief support group for families and young people in Wise County. Professional counselors from the area will facilitate the group, which was scheduled to meet for the first time Monday evening in Decatur.

"We have had so many tragedies," Czerniak said. "This is something we really need here."

'It's been very difficult'

Close friends Samantha Rogers, 17, and Delaney Mancil, 15, were driving on U.S. 380 between Denton and Decatur in November 2010 when a pickup in front of them veered into the oncoming lane.

The pickup hit a work truck, which swerved and sideswiped a sedan before hitting Rogers' car head-on, killing both girls. The next day, grief counselors were summoned to comfort stunned students at Alvord High School.

It was just the first of several tragedies involving promising young people.

On May 25, Aisha Bryant, 16, a school band member, was killed when her SUV was struck from behind on U.S. 287 north of Decatur, according to news accounts. The impact forced Bryant's vehicle to veer into the median, where it rolled and she was ejected.

On July 7, Marcus Silletti, 14, a football player, was struck and killed by a train while walking along the tracks near the crossing at O'Neill Street, authorities said. He was listening to music on headphones and apparently did not hear the train behind him.

On July 29, Cheyanne Dollins, 14, who played softball and showed livestock at 4-H shows, was struck and killed by a train as she stood on tracks just north of town and near her home, authorities said.

Even though school was out for the summer, Alvord school officials opened the school doors to students after Silletti's and Dollins' deaths, parents said. Automated phone calls informed parents of the tragedies, saying teachers and grief counselors were available for students.

Distraught students gathered at the school both times.

"The school was great and they never rushed the kids out of there," said Teresa Mader, who has a daughter in the same class. "They just let everyone be together as long as they wanted."

School was not the only place where the sense of loss felt reoccurring.

Funerals for Rogers, Mancil, Silletti and Dollins were all held at First Baptist Church in Alvord, said Ken Hering, the church's youth pastor. Between 300 and 350 members worship there on Sundays.

After each death, church members cooked meals for the families and deacons provided comfort.

"It's been very difficult," Hering said. "People mention it all the time that it seems like an abundance of grief for such a small town."

Some kids took to social media to express their feelings. Tracy Randall, who publishes Alvord Online, a community news website, has three children, including a son who plays football. Alvord is a small town and all her children knew the teens who died or have connections to their families.

"Rest in Peace" Facebook pages were created for all the deceased teenagers.

"I would say the kids feel shocked and sad," Randall said. "What you see on Facebook is 'What is going to happen next? How much more do we have to take?'"

Grief support group

Grieving parents and teenagers now have a place in Wise County to support each other. The first grief support group meeting is being held at the Wise County Sheriff's Department, Czerniak said.

Organizers decided to hold the meeting in Decatur to make it more accessible to people from across Wise County, Czerniak said.

Czerniak was lucky to have insurance that helped cover the cost of her grief counseling, she said. But some people may not be able to afford counseling or have to drive to Fort Worth for it because it is not available in Wise County.

The meetings should allow parents and teens who have lost loved ones to comfort each other, she said.

"You just don't know until you're in that person's shoes," Czerniak said.

Shonda Matthews Stroud, mother of Aisha Bryant, said Aisha was one of three sisters and that her siblings remain devastated over her death. Aisha worked two jobs and planned to go to culinary school one day.

"Losing her was the most horrible thing you can imagine," she said.

The Sheriff's Department was eager to host the grief support meetings, Sheriff Walker said.

"This has affected everybody, not just Alvord," he said. "I guess it's a good thing about living in Wise County. The whole county is wrapping their arms around these families."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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