Jaelynn Willey was a dedicated swimmer, a loving sister and known for making the most delicious chocolate chip cookies.
So when mourners filed into a prayer service honoring Willey's life on Thursday afternoon, they passed shadow boxes full of ribbons that celebrated her swimming victories. They watched a photo montage of Willey smiling with her siblings. And everyone received a card with Willey's "best ever" chocolate chip cookie recipe written out.
The 16-year-old girl was fatally wounded last week during a shooting at Great Mills High School. But those gathered Thursday did not come together to think about the violent way Willey died.
Instead, they remembered the records she broke on the swim team, the academic accolades she earned and the gentleness she brought into all aspects of her short life.
“Everyone who ever came in contact with Jaelynn walked away thinking, ‘Wow, that was a beautiful soul,’ ” said Michelle Morren, whose daughter was longtime friends with the girl.
Hundreds of people from the close-knit community in Southern Maryland showed up for the service Thursday. Before the doors to the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department had even opened, dozens of mourners were already in line to pay their respects. Many dressed in black, while others wore the green and gold colors of Great Mills High School.
Willey's flower-draped casket was at the front of a large hall, banners emblazoned with “Great Mills Hornets” on either side.
While leading the service, the Rev. Meredith Wilkins-Arnold told the crowd they should hold their favorite stories of Willey close to them as they try to heal.
Wilkins-Arnold served as Willey's Girl Scout troop leader, and she has a son and daughter who are around the same age as Willey. She recalled a Girl Scouts trip many years ago when one of the other scouts said that Wilkins-Arnold's son was “hot.”
Willey commented that must mean the boy has a fever and the girls should probably stay away.
"That captures her total sweetness and innocence," Wilkins-Arnold said.
In the funeral program, Willey’s family wrote that she was “a vibrant, beautiful and sweet teenager who was evolving into a beautiful young lady.” She lovingly cared for her younger siblings and treasured her time hanging out with friends.
She recently went shopping for a dress to wear to her first prom.
But the dance is the kind of milestone the 10th-grade girl will never experience. Last week, the St. Mary’s County sheriff’s office said, 17-year-old Austin Wyatt Rollins walked into Great Mills High School and shot Willey once in the head with his father’s Glock 9 mm. The bullet, fired just minutes before class started, also struck a 14-year-old boy in the leg.
Rollins was then confronted by a school resource officer. The two fired their weapons simultaneously, with Rollins fatally shooting himself in the head and the officer shooting Rollins in the hand.
Willey died at about 11:30 p.m. March 22.
The sheriff’s office said she and Rollins had “a prior relationship which recently ended.”
Melissa Willey, her mother, walked up to the microphone at Thursday’s prayer service holding her youngest child. It was reminiscent of the scene at the University of Maryland Prince George's Hospital Center a week ago, when Melissa Willey told reporters that her daughter was brain-dead and would be taken off life support.
With her daughter’s casket next to her, she told the crowd that she doesn’t have words to explain what she’s going through — that it’s “the absolute worst feeling.”
“She was my girl,” Melissa Willey said. “She was the best girl.”
Willey recently set a club swim team record in the 100-meter butterfly, and she earned her lifeguard certification last year. An honor roll student, Willey loved her two cats, Twilight and Starlight.
Willey was the second-oldest of nine children and loved vacations to the beach with her family. Her uncle, Timothy Cormier, said her memory will live on through her brothers and sisters.
“Swim fast, my sweet girl,” he said. “We promise to do what you would do and take care of one another.”
Two of Willey’s younger siblings spoke, recalling through tears the last day they ever talked to their big sister.
Some who attended Thursday’s prayer service hadn’t known Willey well. But some said the shooting at Great Mills had forever changed the community, and they wanted to come as a show of support. Wilkins-Arnold instructed everyone in the hall to hold hands during the final moments of the service.
The prayer she recited asked for guidance as “we figure out how to heal this community.”
Still, Wilkins-Arnold acknowledged in her prayer: “We can’t help but ask, why?”
More than 100 Great Mills students, alumni and teachers poured into Washington over the weekend, promising to be Willey’s voice at the massive anti-gun violence demonstration, March for Our Lives. Many held signs depicting a silhouette of the girl’s face, drawn above the word, “Enough.”
The funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, and interment will be private.
“She will be missed by many,” her obituary reads, “those who knew and loved her and those who have come to know and love her.”