STOCKBRIDGE — In a touching tribute to MaKayla Penn, the Community Christian School student killed Monday in an Interstate 75 crash, fellow members of the senior class took turns to light their own candles from a single flame and symbolically carry Penn’s light forward.

Students and teachers described Penn, 18, at a vigil Tuesday as a calm and happy spirit who was kind, beautiful and well-loved. As the students lit their candles in her memory, they turned to each other, holding on to one another in grief.

Community Bible Church Lead Pastor Beau Adams encouraged the students to take the evening to mourn their loss in whatever way they needed. He quoted Scripture, “weep with those who weep,” and reminded them of the hope that their faith in God provides.

“He knows that this world is broken, that this world hurts, that this world is not always fair. He knows, he hears and he weeps with you,” Adams said. “I want you to know, for a moment, our hearts break and for a moment we miss her. But it is not over.”

Penn was traveling to Southlake Mall Monday morning, on senior skip day, with a classmate. They were planning to shop for a trip to the beach over spring break. While attempting to navigate the curve at exit 233, just outside the mall, the 17-year-old driver lost control of her vehicle. It left the roadway and flipped several times before crashing into a tree.

The driver was still in the hospital Tuesday.

Several who spoke at the vigil expressed their shock. They had just celebrated senior prom last weekend — “MaKayla looked good at prom,” said one student emphatically, “she was a gem” — and they were looking forward to spring break. Penn was expecting to attend the University of Georgia in the fall and was ticking off the remaining days of her senior year.

For the several hundred gathered in the auditorium of Community church and school, the evening was one of raw emotion.

“Half of my life consists of memories with her,” said M’Kaila Isom, who described herself as Penn’s first best friend. They met in dance class at the age of 3. “My name is a constant memory of her, and I believe that God put us together and named us both MaKayla for that reason. I get to carry on her beautiful spirit.”

Isom chided her friend for always chewing on ice, a habit Isom said Penn picked up from her mother. She attended the vigil wearing full University of Alabama garb in spite of Penn, she said, because the two were looking forward to their college rivalry.

Others shared their memories of Penn’s weekly manicures, a source of pride and sometimes pain. The meticulously maintained nails made it difficult to lift teammates into the air at cheerleading practice.

“She didn’t want for anything,” said one student who stepped up to the microphone, addressing Penn’s parents. “For a family to do that for her, I know you must have loved her so much.”

Danni Washburn, an English teacher at the school, said one of her last memories of Penn was when Washburn came over to inspect her giggling group of friends at lunch. “I wanted in on it,” Washburn said of whatever subject had the seniors in stitches.

“That girl loved well and she was loved well,” Washburn said, describing Penn’s mother as her daughter’s strongest advocate. “MaKayla had a glow about her that will never be put out. It’s a light that I will always remember.”

A second vigil was planned for Wednesday during the church’s youth worship service. Jason Faircloth, pastor of student ministries, said the church and the school would continue to provide support in the difficult days ahead.


Public safety reporter Chelsea Prince joined the Henry Herald and Clayton News Daily in 2016. She is a graduate of Emory University.

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