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GSU honors students lost in I-16 tragedy
Memorial garden dedicated in memory of victims, survivors of April accident
With feelings of fondness and sadness of lost classmates during the dedication of the Georgia Southern University School of Nursing Memorial Garden Monday, Megan Richards, center, huddles with sister Melissa as fellow Georgia Southern nursing student Emily McGuire remembers and honors the five nursing students who lost their lives in an April auto accident. Richards was one of the two students who survived the accident and is also honored, along with fellow survivor Brittney McDaniel, by plants in the garden.

By the time spring returns to Statesboro, the patio outside the Georgia Southern University School of Nursing will be ablaze with new color and life as the new School of Nursing Memorial Garden blooms for the first time. The university held a ceremony Monday, Oct. 19 at 3 pm. to dedicate the garden to the seven young women in whose honor it was planted: Morgan Bass, Caitlyn Baggett, Emily Clark, Abby Deloach and Catherine “McKay” Pittman, who lost their lives in a car crash April 22, 2015, on their way to clinical rotation in Savannah; and Brittney McDaniel and Megan Richards, who were injured in the same crash but are continuing their nursing studies at GSU.

 “Words are not adequate,” Georgia Southern interim president Dr. Jean Bartels began in her welcoming address at the dedication ceremony, speaking to an audience of the friends and family members of the young women harmed in the crash. The dedication’s attendees, which also included university students, faculty and staff and members of the greater Statesboro community, overwhelmed the small patio bordering the garden. “We are missing, and still feel heart-wrenched, by the loss of our beautiful nursing students.”

But while the ceremony served as a reminder to the loss that rocked Georgia Southern and sent shockwaves through the community last April, much of it was dedicated to healing, renewal and celebration of the lives being honored through the planting of new trees. The speakers at the dedication — Bartels, Dean Barry Joyner, School of Nursing Chair Radzyminski and Undergraduate Program Director Melissa Garno — all expressed a hope that nursing students and other visitors to the garden would find it a place of peace, reflection and spiritual rejuvenation.

 “As this garden grows and matures, the trees will form a canopy of shade and protect all those who pass through this patio, symbolic of the women it represents who devoted their lives to the care and protection of others,” said School of Nursing Chair Dr. Sharon Radzyminski during her dedication address.

The garden
The garden, which was proposed and designed by Facilities Services director James Grigg and members of Facilities Services, will feature seven crepe myrtle trees: five with white blossoms for the young women lost in the crash, flanked by two with pink blossoms for survivors McDaniel and Richards. For groundcover, Grigg and his team donated and planted azalea bushes, which will bloom peach for the School of Nursing. Crowning the garden will be a magnolia tree, donated by the University of Pennsylvania, which will also signify the outpouring of support from schools, nursing programs and other organizations from around the nation for months after the tragedy.

Commemorating the garden is a bronze plaque, simply bearing the names of the five students lost in the accident and a line from GSU’s alma mater: “On Eagles’ wings you soar.”

“It’s kind of ironic,” said Sherrin Pittman, McKay’s mother, who attended the ceremony with several members of McKay’s family. “By (McKay’s) bedroom, there’s a crepe myrtle that covers her window. It’s actually pink, but it covers her window and she would get upset with me every spring because I would cut it back. …Now that they’ve had this, that crepe myrtle will probably never be cut back again.”

Families respond — and remember
While some tears were shed during the ceremony by those who still feel the loss of their loved ones, the overall tone of the dedication was one of peace and hope. There was even some laughter, particularly as the GSU Student Nurses Association President Emily McGuire shared a few playful stories about her classmates during her speech, in which she fondly recounted the personalities and spirits of Morgan, Caitlyn, Emily, Abbie and McKay. McGuire ended her speech by expressing the class’s profound gratitude that Brittney McDaniel and Megan Richards were able and willing to rejoin them, despite the painful ordeal they had endured.

“It was a very lovely, very awesome tribute to five beautiful lives and those two who survived the accident,” said Brandi Anthony, speaking on behalf of her niece, Brittney McDaniel, who intends to become a neo-natal intensive care unit nurse after she graduates. “Megan and Brittney, they’ve both been through a lot, and they’ve both leaned on one another, and they’ve had the nursing program to lean on as well. With the ceremony, I think it gave them a little peace as well, and it was just beautiful.”

Among the families whose daughters were lost or injured in the accident, a sense of community and solidarity has formed in the wake of shared mourning. As the dedication gave way to a light reception, members of different families spotted each other across the crowd and came together to embrace. Although Anthony had only interacted with the other families over Facebook, she and the rest of McDaniel’s family were welcomed in with open arms.

“To finally meet them and put a face with the name — it was really special to me,” Anthony said.

As the crowd thinned and dispersed, Jimmy Deloach Jr., Abbie Deloach’s father, placed a small, stuffed panda bear in the branches of one of the crepe myrtle trees. His mother and Abbie’s grandmother, Virginia Deloach, explained that he and Abbie had planned to go on a mission trip to China with Savannah Christian Church. After Abbie’s death, Jimmy took the trip himself and brought the bear back as the souvenir his daughter had wanted.

Virginia, who described her granddaughter as a “ball of fire” who would give a person in need the shoes off her own feet, said that Abbie would have been pleased at the tribute and with the ceremony as a whole.

“It was so beautiful, and so tactful,” she said. “You just want it plain, because that’s the way it is. The profession itself — nursing — is so giving, you don’t want a lot of fluff. …That ceremony reflected all those nurses, I think. Beautiful in their simple way.” She added she would certainly be returning in the spring to see her granddaughter’s tree in bloom.

Sherrin Pittman shared similar sentiments, saying that McKay, who loved being outdoors, would have appreciated that future nursing students would have a garden to enjoy. She also extended her thanks to the Georgia Southern and Statesboro communities.

“I could not have asked for the outpouring of support I’ve received from the school as well as from the community,” Pittman said. “I mean, what an amazing community she was a part of.”

The tragic events of April 22 opened up some wounds that will likely never fully close for many people. But true to the spirit of their profession, the School of Nursing has responded in a way that they hope will facilitate healing for both this class of nursing students and the many that will come after — paying forward the legacy of selfless giving its students exemplify.

“My personal hope is that among this tragedy, all of us can get some sense of peace and use that to better the world we still live in,” said Melissa Garno in her closing acknowledgments. “Everyone who has had a part in this event today has been able to do just that.”

    Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.

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