Grassroots event drew over 500 people and raised $21,500 in donations for the victims’ families

Stunned by the deaths of five women at the SunTrust bank Jan. 23, Chelsea Schell wanted to do something – anything – to help.

An administrative assistant in the AmeriLife insurance office in Sebring, Schell, 26, has lived most of her life in this close-knit community of 10,000 residents, located 70 miles southeast of Tampa. It is best known for the auto races held at its international speedway and as a great place to retire.

Sebring Strong 5k

Runners and walkers at the Sebring Strong 5k starting line

This tragedy hit close to home – literally.

Not only did she know two of the women who died in the shooting, her mom once worked for SunTrust. The bank branch and the AmeriLife office are both on U.S. Highway 27 North, only 2 ½ miles apart.

Within a few short weeks, Schell, her colleagues in the region and other residents had organized the Sebring Strong 5k Memorial Walk/Run, and were distributing flyers all over town.

Emotions run high

About 375 people pre-registered for the event, held March 24 at Highlands Hammock State Park. Many more signed up that day, pushing the number of walkers and runners past 500.

Participants grieved the loss of five innocent souls, comforted the surviving family members who attended and began the process of healing as a community.

Sue Ryan, a Sebring resident, came with her friend, Ashley Grangroth.

She said the Elks held a fundraising pancake breakfast in Sebring immediately after the tragedy. This was the second event she attended to remember the women and support their loved ones.

“If you have the opportunity, you have to help,” Ryan said.

Added Grangroth: “A lot of people thought this couldn’t happen here.”

Sebring office administrative assistant Chelsea Schell (right) with Carol Pacheco, mother of Sebring agent Drew Hendrickson

Local dignitaries included John Shoop, the mayor of Sebring; Karl Hoglund, the city’s police chief; and Paul Blackman, the sheriff of Highlands County, a rural area where locals enjoy hunting and fishing.

Moving forward

Addressing the crowd at the starting point, Shoop said, “Never before have I been so proud of how we responded on that day, when all of our lives changed.”

Added Hoglund, “Every step we take and every stride we make is moving us a little bit closer to our new normal.”

Ana Solis, who lives in nearby Okeechobee, stood near the finish line, tears in her eyes.

Solis lost her best friend since middle school, Ana Piñon-Williams, an employee at the SunTrust bank.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” she said.

Family members said they appreciated the community’s support and recognition of their loved ones. Organizers later presented them with the five memorial plaques on display throughout the event.

An amazing response

Many people helped organize the Sebring Strong 5k, but it all began with Chelsea Schell.

She recruited her coworkers and reached out to the AmeriLife home office, which made a financial donation, created event flyers and furnished giveaway items.

Several of the company’s insurance carrier partners contributed to a fund created for the victims’ families and donated promotional items, while Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast provided volunteers.

AmeriLife agent Ron Courtney and his wife, Sheleena, a fifth-grade reading teacher at a local elementary school, kept track of the cash, checks and gift cards donated.

Quite a few people paid more than the $10 registration fee, they said.

Memorial plaques for the five victims of the shooting

Later, the couple joined their AmeriLife colleagues cheering the returning walkers and runners.

Next steps

The $21,500 raised during the Sebring Strong 5k was turned over April 5 to SunTrust to deposit in the account set up for the victims’ families.

An ice cream party for the volunteers is set for April 10.

Meanwhile, discussions about making this a yearly event are underway.

“We had multiple attendees and officials ask if this would become annual,” Schell said. “Then one of the family members reached out to me and asked.”

The local and regional AmeriLife leadership supports the idea. So does Schell:

“After next week, I will be able to take a deep breath and begin planning.”