Camp Lejeune, NC | October 12, 2012
Weslea Teraberry exuded the energy and excitement of a normal four-year-old. She didn’t walk; she bounced. Her outgoing personality drew people to her, and she never hesitated to tell of her future plans to attend Johnson Primary School with her sister aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
Weslea, however, would never make it to her first day of kindergarten.
In a tragic twist of a typical day, her mother, Chantel, found her choked by the window blind cord. Medics were unable to revive her, and she passed away during an air-lift transport to a nearby hospital Feb. 15, 2008.
The impact continues to ripple across the Marine Corps’s relatively small community where friends become instant family. Just as every reunion, birthday and joyous occasion is celebrated by many, when tragedy strikes it’s not felt by one but by all.
“It rocked our world,” remembers Amanda Hernandez, a close family friend. “If it could happen to them, it could happen to any of us.”
The JPS faculty, along with many of the students and their families, came together to set up a memorial garden in the weeks following Weslea’s death, but over the years, upkeep and safety issues caused the site to be set aside.
As the five-year anniversary of the accident approaches, Weslea’s grandfather, Adrien Joinette found the memorial in need of a makeover during a recent visit.
“When I visited a friend in July, we started talking about the possibilities,” he explained.
The story and suggestions reached JPS’ assistant principal, Kendra Wetherington, who proposed a relocation plan to the school’s Parent Teacher Association for their Beautification Fund.
“(Hernandez) graciously volunteered to head the project, took the ball and rolled with it,” stated Wetherington.
Because of her connection with the Teraberry family, Hernandez wanted to make sure the new memorial was done right.
“I’ve had the pleasure of being a family friend for a long time,” she said. “(Weslea’s death) was devastating to the entire community. It’s nice we’re allowed to do something in her memory.”
Hernandez, along with several other members of the PTA and personal friends, banned together with the help of local businesses and the Department of Defense Education Activity’s maintenance department to build a stone walkway, plant a small garden and set up a statue in Weslea’s memory directly behind the flag pole in front of the school. Benches were also donated to set in the area.
“Weslea was an amazing little girl,” Hernandez pointed out. “This project was near and dear to my heart. It still feels like yesterday.”
The new memorial was revealed Oct. 5 at JPS.
Chantel traveled from Canada, where her family is currently living, with her daughter and Joinette for the unveiling and was taken aback by the encouragement she continues to receive from her friends, the JPS faculty and official base leaders. Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Gorry, commanding general of Marine Corps Installations East, came to show his support and to learn more about who Weslea was.
“What we’ve always hoped for is to bring awareness to the unknown dangers,” Joinette admitted. “It’s nice to know people still want to remember. I never expected all this.”
In addition to the outside display, Hernandez also put together a framed photo collage with a poem written by one of the teacher’s who knew Weslea and a plaque which reads, “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever …. May she forever dance in our hearts as she danced the hallways in her pink boots.”
After uncovering the picture, Chantal addressed everyone who came to remember with her.
“This means so much. Thank you,” she said. “(Weslea) loved this school.”
Wetherington, who was not at JPS when the tragedy occurred, realized the unique bond the military families have with the school while working on the project.
“You can tell what a family we are here,” she pointed out. “We are here to serve our military families everyday. We are a family unit beyond just the military. The connection between school and home is huge. This is just one example. We’ll always rally together.”
Since Weslea’s death, Chantel learned family doesn’t always mean sharing the same blood but rather the same heart.
“Being a military wife, your friends become your family,” she described. “It never matters where you are or how long it’s been since you were together. It’s always like the last day you saw them.”
The group of friends gathered around Chantel after the ceremony, and through choked-back tears, she assured them she wouldn’t have gotten through the tragedy without them.
“For them to even do this for me … I’m so lucky to have the friends I have,” she explained. “These ladies are my home. We’re family.”