Belle Terre Elementary School has supported the family after the death of William, Mozella and Kaleigh Williams.
Updated 4:12 p.m. Sept. 27
In a white shirt and black slacks, Louis Williams sat alone on a bench outside Belle Terre Elementary School. This is the building where Mozella, 13, went to school, and where Kaleigh, 11, was still a student before they died in that crash on April 17. Williams’ wife, Wilma, also died in the crash.
Since then, he said, he has had some good days and some bad days.
“You have to be able to lean on Christ to get you through it,” he said. “Death is going to come, but you don’t expect it to happen like this, especially for me, a 100% family man. There was nothing better than coming home to my wife and kids.”
Although Mozella and Kaleigh will not walk the halls of the school anymore, they will be part of the school. The extended family came together to start a memorial scholarship, and a plaque — with photos of Mozella and Kaleigh — will be on a wall in the school, with names of students added to the plaque each year from now until the year when the sisters would have both been done with Matanzas High School.
"This school is where the girls started out. It holds a special place in our hearts."
REGINA GILYARD-THOMAS, mother of Wilma and grandmother of Mozella and Kaleigh
Several of family members traveled from San Mateo to be with Louis Williams and school staff for a ceremony to unveil the plaque.
“It means a lot because it’s their legacy,” Williams said. “My wife was very big on education, and they come from a big family of educators. So this is something I’m quite sure they would be proud of.”
Williams, wearing a custom-made mask that featured pictures of his wife and daughters, was joined among others by Wilma’s aunt Sandra Gilyard, a preacher from San Mateo. Also in attendance were Wilma's sisters Rhonda Jara, Satura Stokes and brother Earnest Stokes.
“Thank you for this learning institution,” Gilyard prayed before an outdoor ceremony at the entrance of the school on Sept. 24. “Not too often do we find people who step outside of themselves and love as they have loved our family. … We pray your blessings on this school. … Have mercy on us.”
The first two scholarship honorees were Kennedi Cooper and Analia Harper, who will be given yearbooks, field trip money and school T-shirts.
“Whatever you would have to pay for, we’re going to take care of it,” Gilyard said.
Among the staff at Belle Terre who have helped support the family in their grief are Dean Priscilla Campbell, Principal Jessica DeFord, teacher Victoria Smith and, most of all, teacher Abbey Cooke.
“You were a second momma to the girls,” Gilyard said to Cooke. “You did some things that ... only family would do. You sent us poems and artwork — everything you could think of during this moment. You could not have done that if you didn’t love us and love our babies.”
After Kennedi and Analia posed for a photo and the family began to leave, Cooke reflected on the tragedy.
“It broke me for a little while,” Cooke said. “My students really are my kids, and I feel like I’m still healing. It also opened my heart more to love these kids while they’re here because you never know what can happen.”
She added: “This family didn’t love me because I’m a great teacher. It’s making these connections with the kids and knowing them for who they really are. And could be.”
Smith said the quiet scholarship ceremony helped her with her own grief.
“The aura and the atmosphere — even though it brings me sadness, it brings me peace," Smith said.
Cooke also recalled the funeral in April, when Louis Williams tried to turn the somber tone of the gathering into more of a celebration of his wife’s and daughters’ lives.
“There’s really no doubt in the family’s eyes that they are in heaven and at peace,” Cooke said. “Even as sixth- and seventh-graders, they were very strong in their faith. … I am not as strong in my faith as they are, and I found it very comforting.”
Later, Louis Williams would return home, where the bedrooms remain as they did before the crash five months ago.
“That’s my way, for now, of dealing with it,” he said, “as if, in my mind, they’re still here because their rooms are still here. Their smell.”