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Bootheel community rallies to support of accident victims

Monday, February 11, 2002

SIKESTON - Rather than fixate on the way she died, friends, classmates and even complete strangers are focusing their energies on helping her family through the tragedy.

Twelve-year-old Brittany Gates and her aunt were killed New Year's Day when the car her aunt was driving was struck

Two other passengers in the vehicle, Brittany's father, Walter, and her 11-year-old sister, Ashley, sustained serious injuries.

And the support has poured in ever since.

Soon after it happened Shirley Tetley and JoAnn Partin set up a trust fund for the family at Firstar Bank, which made it possible for the Gates to pay off several bills.

"I think the way that little girl died is why people are being so generous, that and the fact that Jessica and her family are such honest people with high integrity," said Tetley, a family friend. "Jessica is so kind and has such a caring, soft heart. These people would give anybody the shirt off their backs if they saw a need. Those children were very protected, they wouldn't even allow them to ride their bikes on the blacktop road, they had to ride them in the driveway."

Last week Pizza Inn teamed up with teachers, principals, students and parents from Scott County Central to raise money for the Gates. Brittany was a sixth-grader at the elementary school.

The volunteers worked at the restaurant three hours on Sunday and four on Monday and when it was over, Pizza Inn donated all the tips, including the volunteer dish washer's salary, to help the family.

"We all just thought this was a good way to help the family out," said Brenda Freed, who helped wait on tables. "Brittany was in my son's class. She was quiet but a sweet and lovable girl, very polite."

Brittany's mother, Jessica, has been employed at Pizza Inn for about 10 years and is currently assistant manager, but was forced to take a leave of absence to care for her family.

"The PTO contacted us and we were happy to support the family," said Danny Tetley, owner of the restaurant. "Jessica has been a friend of the family for years. My wife Belinda and I bought Pizza Inn in August and Jessica came in and spent a lot of time off the clock to help us get ready."

Freed reported the fundraiser netted $1,350 and she expressed how pleased they were at the kindness shown by people in Sikeston and Scott County as a whole. She said several customers remarked they were there because they read the ad in the paper and wanted to help Brittany's family.

"That much money in two day's time, that's fantastic," said Danny Tetley. "Jessica comes from a hard-working family. When it comes to character, they don't get any better, so doing our part to help her and her family was something we had to do."

Students at SCC have also collected money at school and even did without to help raise more funds. "On Tuesdays we have ice cream and another day we have sodas and snacks and instead of buying the ice cream or soda and snacks, the kids gave up that money to give to the Gates," said Lori Scheeter, a third-grade teacher. "This is not something we asked them to do, they asked to do it, which I think is just great. I think if Brittany was here she would say how very proud she is of the school."

Sikeston, New Madrid, Benton, East Prairie, Morley, Morehouse, Vanduser, Jackson, Scott City, Dexter, Oran, Advance, Cape Girardeau, Marquand, Puxico, Elsinore, Poplar Bluff and several cities in Illinois; the checks are coming in from churches, organizations and individuals everywhere, reported Firstar Bank's Robin Pace who is handling the trust fund.

"What the community and surrounding area has done for this family is absolutely wonderful," Shirley Tetley added. "It just goes to show you this area is their brother's keeper and they do take care of their own."

Meanwhile, Gates' days and nights are split between caring for Ashley and going back and forth to the hospital to be with her husband.

Walter Gates sustained a brain stem injury, crushed shoulder and a crushed left side clavicle. He has been in a coma since the accident.

Ashley is now at home, after having been in a coma herself for three days. She sustained massive internal head trauma, a severely bruised abdomen and a ruptured spleen.

After the accident she reverted back to the infant stage but is beginning to regain her abilities. She is receiving physical therapy and is having to relearn everything. Scott County Central is making arrangements to home school her for the rest of this year and maybe the next.

"What can I say to say how much I appreciate what everyone has done?" Gates asked humbly. "I really had no idea that the community would pull together for somebody like me. There are no words to express my appreciation."

Anyone interested in making a donation may send it to The Gates Family Fund c/o Firstar Bank, P.O. Box 1028, Sikeston Mo. 63801.