Nine days after the accident that killed Loudoun County principal Kathy Hwang last November, hundreds of community members stood in the evening darkness outside Sanders Corner Elementary School in Ashburn to mourn the much beloved educator. They clutched flashlights in lieu of candles and spoke through tears about Hwang’s impact on the school and its students.
Sunday morning, nearly a year later, the school campus hosted an even larger crowd that had gathered to remember Hwang. This time, the misty autumn air was filled with the sounds of sneakered footfalls, thumping music and children laughing. A seemingly endless line of people circled the school grounds in the inaugural Making a Difference 5K walk/run, organized to honor Hwang and raise funds to expand her popular reading program.
Hwang, 60, died the day before Thanksgiving last year after being struck by an SUV as she crossed a street in her Sterling neighborhood. She was not in a crosswalk when she was hit, and the teen driver was not charged.
Hwang’s family hoped that the race might ease their distress as the Nov. 21 anniversary of the accident approached, said Jen Nance, Hwang’s 36-year-old daughter. Nance and her father, Herman Hwang, and their many relatives had already faced the many emotional blows that come in the year after a death. There was the canceled trip to China for Herman and Kathy’s 40th wedding anniversary. There were Kathy’s missed weekly playdates with Nance’s two young sons. There were birthdays, holidays, and mundane everydays when Nance would start dialing the phone before she remembered that she couldn’t call her mother.
“Once you’re past the one-year mark, once you’re done with all the ‘firsts,’ maybe then it’s about remembering and not just pushing through,” Nance said.
As her parents’ only child, Nance felt a certain aloneness in her grief. But on Sunday, she stood in the Sanders Corner parking lot and watched as more than a thousand people sprinted and walked and skipped across the finish line.
There were parents and children, volunteer firefighters, scout leaders, teams from schools across the county, babies pushed in strollers. For more than an hour, they kept coming, and the crowd outside the school grew and grew.
Nance smiled and waved, clutching a bucket of buttons that she handed to participants. She wiped away tears.
“I couldn’t have imagined this,” she said. “My mother couldn’t have imagined this.”
Nance had visited Sanders Corner Elementary a few days before the race to see the school’s memorial garden for Hwang. She hadn’t been back to the school since she packed up her mother’s office soon after the accident — a memory Nance calls “one of the low points of my whole life.”
That day, she’d thought it might be hardest to gather her mother’s family photos from her desk. But it was the box of hand warmers that brought Nance to tears. It was a simple reminder of Hwang’s daily routine: No matter how cold it was outside, Hwang would bundle up and wait by the school entrance to greet her students as they arrived.
Hwang and her husband moved to the area from Virginia Beach several years ago to be close to Nance and her growing family in McLean. When Hwang became principal at Sanders Corner in 2005, she started the “I Read to the Principal” program, an initiative she brought with her from her former school. Children from all grades were invited to go to her office to read to her, sharing a favorite story or something they’d written. It was a cherished opportunity at Sanders Corner; young readers wore their “I Read to the Principal” pins proudly.
Michael Jacques, who became the school’s new principal in January, said he was moved by the school’s commitment to the program.
“Every single person I spoke to wanted it to continue,” he said.
Some wanted to take it further. Amy Fremin, one of the organizers of the 5K race, recalled the words of a middle school girl who spoke at the vigil for Hwang last year.
“This girl got up and said she’d never met Mrs. Hwang but she wished that she had a reading program like this one at her school,” Fremin said. “I kept thinking about that girl.”
Fremin and another parent, Sharon Balda, worked with the school to organize the 5K event. The goal was to raise funds to expand the “I Read to the Principal” program to nearby Rolling Ridge Elementary.
It would cost about $1,650 to start a program with new books, buttons, a photo printer and other supplies, school administrators estimated.
The organizers imagined that a few hundred people might sign up to run. But after registration opened, the number quickly hit 400, then 600. Then 800.
By the day of the 5K event, more than 1,100 people were registered, and the Sanders Corner campus was a sea of T-shirts printed with the words “Making a Difference” and the image of a starfish— a symbol taken from a story that Hwang shared with her teachers at the start of the school year.
In the story, a boy walked along the beach at low tide and returned stranded starfish to the sea.
When a man questioned whether the boy’s efforts would make a difference — noting that there were hundreds of miles of shoreline — the boy picked up another starfish, placed it in the surf and said, “I made a difference for that one.”
As Nance stood at the finish line with her family, a steady flow of people approached her, wanting to share a thought or a memory about her mother. Parents told her how Hwang had inspired their children to do more for the community. Teachers told her that they still thought of Hwang every time they drafted a lesson plan.
Soon after he crossed the finish line, Joey Alonso, a military retiree and Sanders Corner parent, walked up to Nance. He said he became a volunteer at the school because Hwang made such a strong impression when he met her. Hwang once told him that he had a special touch with kids, he said.
When Hwang died, Alonso decided to become a substitute teacher at the school. Now he is planning to go back to school to get a full-time teaching certification.
“We were just so blown away by her,” he said of Hwang. “She had this incredible ability to connect, this selflessness.”
Becoming a teacher “is something I felt like I had to do for me and for her,” he said. “It is something I aspire to do in her memory.”
Sunday’s race raised far more than expected, according to the organizers, who were still tallying the exact number.
In addition to more than $16,000 in sponsorships and donations, more than 260 new books were donated during a book drive, Fremin said. The success of the event — which organizers plan to hold annually — will allow them to establish the reading program in more schools.
Nance said she was profoundly grateful for those who made it happen.
“There is still this jagged hole,” Nance said of her mother’s absence. But seeing all the runners and hearing their stories helped “smooth the edges,” she added.
“It made me realize that there are so many people out there that are continuing to carry on her legacy,” Nance said. “Her life was not just lost. There is a lot about it that is still going, still growing.”