Mary-Kathryn Abernathy never realized her dream of becoming a history teacher. The Columbia native was killed by a drunken driver while watching a drag race in the early morning hours of June 21, 2009, along westbound Interstate 70 near Security Boulevard in Woodlawn. She was 21.
Now, nearly four years later, her father and stepmother want to help other graduates of Abernathy's former high school, Long Reach, achieve their own dreams.
Dave and Michelle Abernathy have established the Mary-Kathryn Abernathy Memorial Scholarship Fund — two $500 scholarships that will be awarded for the first time at Long Reach's Senior Awards night Thursday, May 23.
"We knew we wanted to do this early on," said Michelle Abernathy. "We wanted to do something positive. It was such a tragedy and we wanted something good to come out of it. Mary-Kathryn wanted to be a teacher and she was involved in the arts, and we wanted to give something so another student could go on and do those things."
The scholarships are being facilitated through the Community Foundation of Howard County — formerly the Columbia Foundation — and were established with funds the Abernathys had from insurance settlements from the accident that killed both Mary-Kathryn and her boyfriend, Jonathan Henderson, 20, of La Plata. The man responsible for the accident, Donneil Raeburn, was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Since losing Mary-Kathryn, Dave Abernathy said, their house has been so quiet it seems that the building itself is in mourning. Michelle Abernathy said establishing the scholarship has helped to heal.
"When you have a child, you have dreams for that child," she said. "You think about what they're going to do. With Mary-Kathryn, everything was stopped with her. We can give an opportunity for other kids to go and fulfill their dreams, when she was not able to fulfill hers."
Kami Wagner, a resource school counselor in the Howard County Public School System's central office, said each high school in the county could have anywhere "from zero to five" scholarships similar to the ones the Abernathys have established. Scholarships are set up not just to memorialize young men and women taken before their time, but beloved staff members as well.
"Every family has unique reasons for setting up scholarships, and each story is unique," Wagner said. "But the families and students I've worked with, it's that they're trying to honor something about this student or staff member. They want to help them live on and give on."
Debbie Daskaloff, development officer for the Community Foundation, said of the about 20 scholarships they administer, most are memorial scholarships. Not all are to memorialize students — some memorialize community members and some, such as the Mary Ann Levant Homewood Center Scholarship and Mary Ann Levant Marriotts Ridge Scholarship, are created in educators' names.
"I think it's a way to help people cope with a loss," Daskaloff said. "It's a way to do something positive in the face of such tragedy. Often, it's a way of giving back. By naming the scholarship, it's a way to continue to remember their loved one in a very positive way."
Memorializing Mary-Kathryn with a scholarship was what the Abernathys felt "comfortable" with, Dave Abernathy said.
"For us, we feel that education is extremely important, so the scholarship goes in line with that," he said. "We strongly encourage every kid, every person, to never stop learning."
Mary-Kathryn Abernathy was a 2006 graduate of Long Reach and a student at Howard Community College when she died. While at Long Reach, Mary-Kathryn was active in the theater department and appeared in several school productions, so one of the scholarships is for a student who will be pursuing a career in the arts. The other is for a student pursuing a teaching degree. That way, Dave Abernathy said, his daughter will touch countless lives through the work of others.
"What really elates me about this is that we're giving scholarships to people who want to make a positive contribution to our society, either by being a teacher or by being in the arts," he said. "Mary-Kathryn's legacy will live on. I envision that these people who get these scholarships will one day go on and teach, and they will teach thousands of kids throughout their careers. Mary-Kathryn will live on through them. And the arts are such a vital part of our culture, so individuals going on and displaying their talents like that in front of an audience, again, Mary-Kathryn lives on in this way."