(Photo by Leonna Heuring, Staff)
CHARLESTON -- Third grader Catie Austin finished writing on her red heart-shaped paper, took a piece of tape from her teacher and hung it on the window of her classroom.
The 8-year-old then recalled what message she wrote about her late principal Becky Stewart: "She was a very nice lady. She had a good personality and has very nice kids. She was very smart, and I loved her a lot," Catie said.
Catie's classmate, Roge Modicue, 8, also wrote a message on his paper heart.
"Mrs. Stewart was a nice principal to have. I had great time with her, and she was very nice," Roge said.
Students and staff at Hearnes Elementary School in Charleston took time today to celebrate the life of their principal who died unexpectedly Oct. 20. Stewart was 36.
"This is for the kids to honor Mrs. Stewart," said third grade teacher Robin Smith. "This gives the kids a hands-on way to do something and express their feelings."
Red hearts like Catie's and Roge's featuring messages from students and staff to Stewart adorn all the windows at every building in the Charleston R-1 School District.
"The hearts are a sign of how important she was to us and means to us," assistant principal Tammy Brock said. "We're always going to keep her in our thoughts. ... We have an extra angel watching over us now."
Stewart's "school family" at Hearnes also honored Stewart with a "drop everything and read" session today.
"She loved reading, and that was very important to her that all kids read," Brock said.
At the conclusion of the reading, each student in prekindergarten through sixth grades -- about 700 students -- released a balloon in Stewart's memory from the school playground.
Brock said the celebration was planned by teachers at the school and with permission from the superintendent.
"They thought it would be good to do something in celebration of her life and also so the kids had closure," Brock said.
Mary Barnhill, second grade teacher at Hearnes, said she thought the celebration would "thrill" Stewart.
"She'd be so happy that so many people cared. (If she were here) she'd be right in the middle of it all. She liked activities," Barnhill said.
Even though the celebration was for the students, the adults in their lives also benefitted from it. Barnhill said in the 31 years she's worked as a teacher -- and 19 years at Hearnes -- she's never experienced anything like the aftermath of Stewart's death.
"It's a hard situation," Barnhill said. "When you work with someone every day, there's a void."
But Barnhill said she and fellow staff members feel blessed for what time they did have with Stewart.
"There's so much to say (about Stewart) and to pick one thing is hard to do because she touched so many lives here," Smith said.
In the school's office, a large laminated cutout of a tree called "Complimentary Tree ... in Bloom" where compliments are posted about staff members is full of pictures of Stewart and messages from her co-workers.
"We're going to greatly miss her," Brock said. "We're going to miss her laugh. She loved to tell stories. She enjoyed life."
But the educators know they must to go on.
"She would want us to be here with the students because it's important for the kids to be here at this school," Barnhill said. "She wouldn't want us to stop one minute so that's what we've done -- I think she'd be proud of all of us."