Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"Kayla's Shoes" by Jill Porter


Mrs. P said...


GRIEF CAN isolate your heart and embitter your spirit, so no one could blame Melissa Mann if she was indifferent to other tragedies.

She'd lost her oldest daughter, Kayla Peter, in a horrific hit-and-run accident on June 19 and endured two months of frustration until a suspect was arrested for leaving the scene.

And yet, as she watched the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, she wanted very much to help.

Mann, 34, an accounts-receivable clerk who has two other children, gave $10 to the relief effort through a collection at a store where she shopped.

And then one night last week, there was a knock on her door that would link the two tragedies in a way Mann never could have anticipated.

She was asked to donate Kayla's school-uniform shoes to a teenage hurricane victim who'd moved here to live with members of her extended family.

What bereaved mother could give away something so personal that belonged to her deceased child?

And yet, what better way to ease the heartache, than to help someone else who'd lost so much, too?

Lacey West fled here with her mother and brother when the fierce storm left their hometown of Biloxi, Miss., without water and electricity. Her father is a Water Department employee who stayed behind to search for bodies.

"The hurricane lasted 12 hours, and it was just nonstop wind, and a tornado hit the front yard of my grandmother's house," said Lacey, who'll turn 15 next week. "My school was destroyed."

So Lacey and her mother and brother moved in with her aunt and uncle in Roxborough.

"I just decided to bring them up here for the year," said Norman Gartner, a SEPTA mechanic who lives on Hermitage Street.

"That way, they wouldn't miss school."

Last week, Gartner registered Lacey at Hallahan High School in Center City.

Hallahan is absorbing the cost of her tuition, he said, and it provided her with the traditional school uniform - including a pair of its trademark saddle shoes.

The shoes are a long tradition at Hallahan: blue and white, the school colors, worn with different colored laces depending on the year. Lacey, who was starting her sophomore year, needed a pair with blue laces.

One problem, though: the shoes the school gave her were too big.

As they wondered what to do - this was last Thursday, and school was starting the next day - Gartner got an idea.

Maybe an old acquaintance of his named Donna Persico could help.

He'd read about Persico in the newspapers. She'd organized demonstrations at the home and business of the woman who was eventually arrested in the accident that left Kayla dead.

He'd met Persico years ago when their sons attended Catholic grade school. And he knew she had a daughter at Hallahan.

Maybe she had an extra pair of shoes for his niece. Out of the blue, he called her and asked.

Persico didn't have an extra pair of shoes.

But the obvious - and morbid - thought occurred to her immediately: Kayla's shoes.

But how could she make such a request of Melissa Mann?

"I was reluctant. It seemed like such a cherished item," Persico said.

"If it were my child, I could not give up those shoes. But if you think of Kayla - she'd be the first person to say, 'Take them.' "

Hallahan connections made it a little easier: Persico and Mann had preceded their daughters there. It's the oldest diocesan girls' school in the country and inspires deep loyalty, said principal Nan Gallagher.

Sharing Kayla's shoes would be "very much in the spirit of Hallahan," Gallagher said.

Persico's daughter, AnnMarie, who was Kayla's best friend, urged her mother to at least ask.

It was close to midnight when they knocked on Mann's door and told her about Lacey West.

Mann didn't hesitate for a moment.

She retrieved Kayla's gently worn shoes from the top of a dining room cabinet, where they'd been hastily placed the night she was killed.

Kayla had finished school for the summer only two days earlier; she'd left her shoes next to her bookbag in the living room.

"I'd love to keep them because they're Kayla's," Mann said, "but Lacey needed shoes for school."

Mann made two requests when she donated the shoes:

That she get them back if Lacey got a different pair.

And that she get to keep the blue shoelaces.

Donna and AnnMarie took the shoes - and sobbed all the way home.

Lacey West understands that she has, quite literally, "big shoes to fill," as Persico puts it.

"I feel sad for the people that knew her," Lacey said of Kayla, "but I'm grateful her family donated the shoes to me."

And Mann is glad to know she could help the victims of a different kind of tragedy.

"This way I know something I did got to somebody from there," she said.

Mann said she's planning to give Lacey some of Kayla's other belongings, too: Hallahan sweaters and unworn socks, and whatever else she can salvage.

In the chaos of lives uprooted like saplings by hurricane winds and hellish accidents, generosity and compassion provide a steadfast lifeline.

It's a small, but reassuring, consolation.

Bern said...

That has to be one of the most beautiful and heart warming stories I 've heard in a long time. Something so warm and touching in such a time of grief and sadness! I think what Melissa did was exactly what Kayla would have done. They say the apple doesn't fall to far from the tree! I know it was hard for Donna and Annie to ask and I'm glad they did. I think this just goes to prove that Kayla is still alive and well in her friends and family. God Bless.

Dan said...

This story does not surprise me! I know Melissa and she has a big heart. But reading the story tore out mine! Kayla you were and are loved and your spirit will walk the halls of Hallahan. Lissa, I am so proud of you!