By TAYLOR HARTZ
Hundreds of students, teachers, coaches, and school administrators gathered on the Southington High School softball field on Wednesday evening to honor the lives of AnnMarie “Annie” Olender and Olivia Fusco.
Photos of the young girls lined poster boards along the field’s fence, where candles were lit and balloons flew, reading “Rest In Peace” and “We Will Remember You.”
Many students wore shirts decorated with photos of the two girls, with their names and softball team numbers written along their arms as they gripped tightly to one another.
Olender, 16, and Fusco, 14, were killed in a motor vehicle accident on I-84 on Tuesday afternoon.
Olender was reported to have been traveling eastbound in the left lane when the vehicle struck a rope guardrail on the left shoulder and entered an embankment area where the vehicle overturned and struck a tree.
Friends, classmates, family, and teachers held each other close in a large huddle,
as dozens of high school and middle school students wept into a megaphone in the center of the circle, sharing their memories and emotions, and mourning the loss of their friends.
As students shared stories of the two girls, adults encouraged them to learn from the tragic event, and appreciate the support shown on the field that evening.
“Remind yourselves constantly of the two girls who are no longer with us but whose spirits will always be with us in this community,” said Christopher Richter, a social studies teacher at the high school. “Please keep each other in your heart. Please be good to one another the way these two girls Olivia and Annie would have wanted us to be.”
Southington High School principal Brian Stranieri, Superintendent Tim Connellan, and members of the Town Council joined several staff members in urging students to seek support from their classmates, community members, and counseling services.
“The ripple effect of tonight will be felt from one end of Southington to the other,” said Victoria Triano, who led the crowd in prayer and singing “Amazing Grace.”
“The love that we have for one another, and the love we have for these two young women will go on.”
Triano encouraged all those in mourning to remember small aspects about the girls and celebrate them by carrying those traits into their own lives.
“When we are done mourning their loss, then lets all try to find a way to celebrate their lives,” added Stranieri.
Wednesday’s gathering, organized by the students, was the first event in a town-wide effort for ongoing support. Another community vigil was held the following night at St. Dominic Church in Southington, hosted by the church’s youth group.
Wednesday’s event, organized by SHS sophomore Taylor Harton, 15, was planned on Tuesday evening, shortly after news of the accident reached friends and family.
Harton, a friend of Fusco, said she felt the need to bring the community together in their mourning, and reached out to school administrators for help. “There are so many people and so many emotions, I think that you just need to have a place where everyone else is feeling the same way and just share those feelings,” she said.
Connellan said school administrators were happy to provide a safe place for students and community members to gather.
“This community rises to the occasion every single time to help one another and be good to one another,” he said. “We saw a demonstration of that here tonight.”
He urged members of the community to continue reaching out to administrators and town resources for counseling services.
Having received calls from private practitioners, superintendents from neighboring districts, and a consultant at the State Department of Education, all offering services and support, Connellan said the town has plans for ongoing outreach and will be prepared for the difficult days ahead.
Connellan emphasized that counseling services are available for parents and faculty, as well as students. Along with several teachers and parents, he encouraged students to turn to one another for support in the days to come.
“Every teacher, every adult, every parent, every friend is important in your life, remind each other of that every day because that is the most important thing you have you have each other,” said Richter, “You have this community, and you have an amazing place to grow up and know that you are loved.”
The superintendent said school counselors, psychologists, and social workers will be aware of ongoing emotional trauma and reactions to the tragic event, and the school system will continue to support students when they return in the fall.
“The halls of Southington High School will never be the same without these two young ladies,” said Stranieri, “But I promise you the halls of Southington High School will never ever forget them.”