Friday, March 28, 2014

TOP STORY >> Three teens remembered

Leader staff writer

Ten years after three area cheerleaders were killed in a car crash at the intersection of Hwy. 5 and Hwy. 89 in Cabot, their memory lives on and continues to impact the lives of others.

For the second year in a row, Western Sizzlin’ in Jacksonville is hosting a “Free Breakfast (but bring a donation!)” fundraiser from 6 until 10 a.m. next Friday to raise money for the families’ Three Cheerleaders Memorial Scholarships. And 103.7 The Buzz will do its show live from the restaurant that day.

Last year, the breakfast added $5,000 to the scholarship fund’s coffers, bereaved mother Becky Russell told The Leader Thursday.

Five scholarships are awarded each year — two are available to students at Jacksonville High School, North Pulaski High School, Cabot High School and Sylvan Hills High School, she said.

Two more are awarded to Sylvan Hills students, and another one is awarded to a North Pulaski student in honor of Taylore’ Hall, 15, Alicia Rix, 16, and Jae Lynn Russell, 16.

“They were all good girls. They were taken during the peak of their lives…Their songs were building to the crescendo,” Russell said. “It left us wanting something so much more.”

The three cheerleaders died on March 18, 2004, when their 2001 Saturn collided with a tractor-trailer rig. Theirs was not the first fatal accident at that intersection, now called Angel’s Crossing. A traffic signal has since been installed there.

Russell said, “I think all of the parents, and all of the siblings too, would say we all had a wreck…We’ve been totally transformed by their deaths.”

She added, “We are all much better people.”

Russell explained that she has told Jae Lynn’s sisters to “live large, have no regrets.” The mother also joined the Bereaved Parents of the U.S.A. board after the tragedy.

Russell said she has taken her own advice too. “I’ve learned to appreciate life more,” she said.

Hall and Rix attended Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood. Russell was transferring to Sylvan Hills from North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville.

One of the Sylvan Hills-only awards bears Hall’s name, and the other is named for Rix. The one awarded to a North Pulaski student is named for Jae Lynn Russell.

She was one of Becky Russell’s three daughters.

Becky Russell said, if her daughter and the other girls could say how they felt about the scholarships, “I think they would be so touched that they would be remembered so well.”

She also said the scholarships brought together the three families who didn’t know each other before the accident. “We’re still very close,” Russell said.

The girls met at cheerleader tryouts just a few weeks before they died.

Russell said she called Reg Hammand of Sherwood after the tragedy to talk about how Jae Lynn could best be remembered. “I wanted it to be meaningful. I wanted it to be large,” she said.

Hammand suggested that the three families team up to honor the girls in a big way. He told them, if the teenagers had lived another 50 years, they probably would have stayed in the area, gone to school and raised families.

Russell said the scholarships help young people do what the girls never had a chance to do.

Hammand set the families’ goal of giving out $250,000 in scholarships for each girl — a total of $750,000 — over the next 50 years.

Russell said the $750,000 goal had not been reached yet, but the fund has between $300,000 and $400,000. And more than $100,000 in scholarships has been awarded to six or seven students. A committee separate from the parents chooses the recipients to prevent bias.

About the aftermath of the tragedy, Russell said, “One of the most incredible and surprising stories is how the community has come together.”

One of the scholarship winners, Taylor Barrow, has graduated college, teaches in Greenbrier and has asked one of Jae Lynn’s sisters to be a bridesmaid in her upcoming wedding.

Another recipient, Austin Rodgers, attends Hendrix College in Conway and is very involved with the drama department. He has starred in several productions, Russell said.

The scholarships have no big sponsors, she continued. It is moms, dads and friends donating small amounts.

Her family has a few wealthier friends who have donated $500 or $1000, but those are the largest contributions, Russell said.

Friday’s breakfast is not the only soiree that raises money for the scholarship fund, she added.

Every year on the anniversary of the accident, the families host a free dinner, but bring a checkbook event.

After a few years, a silent auction was added to that. With hundreds of small items donated by local businesses, it raised $12,000 this year, which Russell said was the last year it will be held.

The families also host an annual softball tournament that will be held on Memorial Day weekend. Three sponsors are needed to pay for T-shirts, trophies and hire umpires. All three girls played softball, Russell said.

Then she described her daughter as “curious” and “full of whimsy.” Russell said Jae Lynn loved the uniqueness of people.

Jae Lynn used a dry erase marker to draw a picture of a girl going fishing on her mother’s mirror the morning of the accident. A copy of that picture now adorns the site where her life ended.

Russell said her daughter was affected by the deaths of two teenage boys who were killed in a similar crash a few months before the cheerleaders died.

Jae Lynn, in her dairy, wondered about death and whether she would be loved and missed like those boys, Russell said.

The mother told her daughter she would be, and her word has been proven true.

Russell also told The Leader that Alicia was beautiful, poised and mature while Taylore’ was an infectious, impish tomboy who knew how to be a lady too.