KATHLEEN -- Many students, teachers and administrators wiped away tears during Mondays memorial for 12-year-old India JaNai Collins at Mossy Creek Middle School. Some hugged each other.
Students were often on their feet offering standing ovations to the remarks and actions of Principal Andy Gentry and their slain classmates parents, John and Angela Collins, during the memorial inside the gym.
Indias 17-year-old sister, Carmen Collins, is charged with murder and other crimes in Indias July 3 death at the familys Kathleen home.
Gentry told students that Indias death offers two lessons. The first is to live how you want to be remembered.
He shared of having met with India once toward the end of the school year because she was never in trouble. But she was sent to his office when her cell phone went off in class.
Gentry, then assistant principal, recalled the tears in her eyes as she told him she was sorry.
I was so impressed by her maturity, her sweet attitude and her smile, Gentry said.
He also heard stories about India and how she had impacted so many people at only age 12.
Life is precious, Gentry told students as he made his second point. We need to live every day to its fullest potential.
He encouraged students to often tell those theyre close to that they love them, to live responsibly and respectfully, and to help others less fortunate.
Gentry presented a plaque to Indias parents and red roses to her mother. He told her parents and nearly a dozen of her family members present at the memorial that a weeping willow tree had been planted in Indias honor.
This tree was chosen because it represents our tears and our sorrow for her loss, Gentry told the family.
Shannon Walsh, president of the student council, presented the parents with a school yearbook.
Angela Collins thanked all assembled for the act of kindness to them in the most difficult time.
Our hearts are filled with joy because of it, she said.
Collins told the students she did not know what happened the afternoon India was killed.
Her sister in her right mind would never harm or hurt her, she said.
Carmen Collins is accused of shooting her sister to death in the foyer-living room area with her fathers .40 caliber handgun, setting their home on fire with gasoline and fleeing to Columbus. Its unclear whether the home was set on fire before or after the shooting. She was arrested July 5 in Columbus, where shes also accused of selling the gun.
Houston County Public Defender Nick White, who is representing Collins, has said he believes he has information that will lead to her being exonerated.
Its her claim that she did not shoot her sister, that there were other people involved and that she did not go to Columbus willingly, White said by telephone last week after bond was denied for Collins. He declined to elaborate.
At Indias memorial, Angela Collins told students that God makes no mistakes, and he needed another angel in heaven.
She shared that Indias favorite symbol was the peace sign.
Sleep in peace, Collins said of India. We wont stop until justice is served. We love you our Nai Nai.
John Collins told the students, Dont take the really small things for granted because you never know when your loved one will be gone.
He said India had a big heart and was sweet and innocent.
And then he did something unexpected. He broke into the gospel song, I Need You Now, by Smokie Norful.
The weight of trials that beat upon me but to know, Lord, with you, Ive got victory. Yeah, Collins sang. I need you now. I need you now. I need you now, Lord, right now, right now. I need you now.
When finished, he raised his left hand and gave students the peace sign.
Peace, he said.
Those in the gym were again on their feet in applause.
Afterward, Gentry, along with the elected members of the student council, took the family outside to view a stone memorial for students who have died in the five years Mossy Creek Middle has been in existence. The students either attended the school at one time or would have attended the school.
A plaque for India was added to the large stone also memorializing Bridget and Leslie Sullivent, sisters who were killed in a car crash, and Joanna McAfee and Macy Easom, both victims of childhood cancer. A weeping willow tree has been planted on each side of the stone, one of them for India.
Gentry told her parents he hoped the trees would grow to stretch over the stone to offer shade and a quiet place to rest and reflect on their daughter. Angela Collins thanked him and reached down and touched the plaque. The memorial quietly ended in reflection. A family member snapped a photo from her cell phone.
After the family left, Gentry said the school had wanted to do something for the family but wanted to wait and let some time pass in the grieving process in hopes they might enjoy the memorial more. He also hoped the memorial would open the door for students who would like to talk about the loss of their friend, which occurred during the summer when school was not in session.
We just felt like our school had not had the opportunity to grieve this loss, Gentry said.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.