Students gathered at the rock in front of Thomson High School for the second time this school year to bid farewell to a fellow student. Cheryl Helmly, a 17-year-old junior, was killed in an automobile accident on her way to school Tuesday morning.
Just as students had gathered to mourn the passing of THS senior Amber Hinton from an ATV accident in September, a group painted the rock in memory of Cheryl just hours after the accident that took place at the corner of Ginger Hill and White Oak Roads.
School faculty and staff also reacted to the tragic news while attempting to console her classmates.
"Today is one of the most difficult days that I have ever had as a teacher," said Robin Dudley, Cheryl's healthcare science teacher. "She was beautiful inside and out. She loved everyone she met. She was always kind, considerate and compassionate. Each day when Cheryl entered my class, she greeted me with a huge smile and 'Mrs. Dudley, I hope you are having a great day!' Cheryl was my inspiration."
Friends, parents and teachers also gathered at The Warehouse - Thomson First Baptist Church's youth building - after word of the accident spread throughout the school as well as the community.
"I've known her since third grade," said Lindsey Burch, one of Cheryl's best friends as she mingled with other students outside The Warehouse. "...I don't know what to say. ...It doesn't seem real. It's like we can just go home and call her, and she'll be here in a few minutes."
Lindsey and Nichole Usry then began swapping favorite memories of their best friend, enough to coax out a couple of smiles through the tears. Both recalled an instance when Cheryl wanted to write about her best friends on a social networking internet site.
"Remember when she made a bulletin about her best friends on Facebook?" Nichole asked Lindsey with a laugh. "That was so funny. You're my best friend; you're my best friend. That's what she said on there about us. ...And she always said girls are much, much smarter than boys. She said that all the time."
The accident that claimed Cheryl's life took place as she attempted to turn right onto White Oak Road from Ginger Hill Road shortly before 7:50 a.m.
According to Georgia State Patrol Cpl. Ritchie Howard, Cheryl failed to yield the right of way, and the Chevrolet truck driven by 80-year-old Boneville resident, Claude Whitaker, hit the driver's side of Cheryl's Toyota Camry. Mr. Whitaker was transported to the Medical College of Georgia and was listed in good condition Tuesday afternoon.
McDuffie County Coroner Rhusha Mack said Cheryl - who was wearing her seatbelt at the time of the accident - was transported to McDuffie Regional Medical Center and pronounced dead at 9 a.m.
Word at the school began to spread quickly. The baseball game against Jefferson County set for Tuesday was postponed until Saturday at 1 p.m., and local ministers and grief counselors were available to talk to students during the day.
"The main thing for me was to listen to the students talk about what they were feeling and how much they were going to miss her and their shock," Thomson First Baptist Pastor Jim Ramsey told WTHO's Mike Wall.
Students gathered at the rock in front of THS Tuesday evening for a candlelight vigil.
Cheryl was ranked 13th in her class of 294. She was a member of the Beta club, Spanish club and was voted Miss Congeniality during the Miss THS Pageant.
Visitation will be held Wednesday evening from 6 to 8 p.m. in the fellowship hall of Harlem United Methodist Church. Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Thursday at Thomson First Baptist.