Sunday, July 22 would have been Jessica Santos' 25th birthday. Instead, six years ago she was killed in a drive-by shooting in Yonkers, the day before she was to start her sophomore year at the University of New Haven. She was studying criminal investigations.
This young woman from Tarrytown and full of promise had a thing for butterflies. At her funeral, someone captured a butterfly that happened to appear, releasing it as Jessica was buried. The butterfly paused on the coffin, then circled up in the sky, “straight to heaven,” said Jessica's mom Gisela Marin.
Every year since, Marin has coordinated a Memorial Walk/Family Fun Day to raise scholarship funds in her only child's honor. Butterflies have always figured prominently in the day. On on Sunday, there were boxed living butterflies distributed to participants as Marin read a poem.
Some butterflies, once released, didn't want to leave their hosts, clinging to hair and fingers, but all eventually took off. As dozens of walkers looped Broadway and Beekman and returned within an hour to the park, there certainly seemed to be more orange Monarchs than usual fluttering around from clover flower to echinacea.
Family and friends were there to remember Jessica — "I think about her everyday," said Marin — and they also had last week's movie theater massacre in Colorado on their minds.
“It's very disturbing to think you're not even safe in a movie theater,” Marin said. “We need to have stricter gun laws. In New York State it's pretty good but in the midwest, it's like getting candy in a store.”
Another family touched forever by the tragic loss of their college-age daughter were the Bonistalls of White Plains. Lindsey Bonistall, a 20-year-old sophomore journalism major, was raped and murdered in her off-campus housing at the University of Delaware in 2005, a year before Jessica's death. The deaths have brought the two families together.
Kathleen and Mark Bonistall started their own foundation, PEACE OUTside Campus, with an annual 5K on October 28 at Purchase College but they make a point of supporting this foundation as well. “We wouldn't miss this for the world,” Kathleen said.
In light of Friday's mass shooting, “You would think there'd be 1,000s here today,” Kathleen said. Instead, it was a smaller crowd this year than usual. Marin figured many were on vacation on this clear and sunny summer day.
Seeing as it was also a birthday party, there were balloon animals for the kids, face-painting, a demonstration from the Sleepy Hollow K-9 unit, and an overall mood of hope.
“I relate butterflies to Gisela and Jessica and the foundation," Kathleen Bonistall said. "We all kind of pick something in flight [for our foundation symbols]. We have a dove."
For more information and to donate to the Jeffica N. Santos Foundation click here: www.rememberingjessica.com
And for the Lindsey M. Bonistall Foundation click here: www.peaceoutsidecampus.org