Late August is a time for back-to-school shopping and final trips to the beach; it is not, according to the Rev. Luke Erickson, a time to hold a funeral for a 15-year-old girl.
"There shouldn't be funerals for 15-year-olds," Erickson, the executive pastor for Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, said during the funeral service for Maleigha Catherine Solonka Wednesday at the church.
"This is a hard day, there's no getting around that," Erickson said. "We did not expect to be here and, and nor should we."
Maleigha, who lived with her guardians Darlene and Vance DuPree in Edgewood, was found dead Aug. 16 in a wooded area off of Webb Lane in Havre de Grace.
Relatives reported her missing to the Harford County Sheriff's Office Aug. 10, and her body was found a week later. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has ruled the death a homicide by asphyxiation.
The case remains under investigation by the Havre de Grace Police Department, whose chief said earlier this week that a suspect has been identified but has not been charged.
The service Wednesday was about celebrating Maleigha's life, as well as mourning her death. Mourners filled the main sanctuary at Mountain Christian to hear prayers, songs and words of comfort and remembrance.
Maleigha's body had been cremated, according to Vance DuPree, who is also her uncle. He said a burial service is still being planned.
"It's overwhelming, the impact that she put on people's lives," said DuPree, who noted "people coming up to support her celebration of life."
DuPree and the rest of Maleigha's family members greeted and hugged people as they arrived during the visitation that preceded the funeral.
"There's a lot of people here, friends and and family, friends of the family, friends of friends — it's a just a lot of love," James Champ, DuPree's nephew and Maleigha's cousin, said.
Champ, 25, lives in Edgewood near the DuPrees. He said he and Maleigha were close, that he had known her and her cousin Cembra — DuPree's 15-year-old daughter — since they were small children.
He remembers Maleigha as "strong willed."
"She was smart, dedicated, definitely a go-getter," Champ said.
Darlene DuPree, Maleigha's aunt, said the family has been "just going through different emotions, just tying to figure out why" since her death.
"She was very fun, bubbly, energetic, always had a smile no matter what," DuPree said.
Maleigha is survived by her guardians, as well as her parents, Jamilee C. Solonka and Gregory L. Keels, her maternal grandparents, Donna Elliott and James Solonka, paternal grandparents, Bridgette and Leon Keels, her great-grandmother, the Rev. Nazireth Lyons, also known as Big Granny, according to her obituary, which was in the funeral program and ready by Erickson during the service.
Additional survivors include Maleigha's sisters, Makayla and Kristyanna, and brother, Noah, plus aunts, uncles, cousins and more extended friends and family, according to the obituary.
A black urn holding Maleigha's ashes sat at the front of the sanctuary, surrounded by pink flowers.
Photos of Maleigha were projected onto screens. Another framed photo was placed near the urn, along with her framed Churchville Glory softball jersey, with her number, 2, facing out.
Her uncle, Korey Keels, said she was known as LeeLee in his family. She would confide in him if she had problems at home or in school, telling him, "Uncle Korey, I just want to live a normal life."
Keels acknowledged that "we all feel cheated that she was taken from us so young," but people should also be grateful for the time with Maleigha.
Her great-grandmother led mourners in prayer.
"Lord God, we come [together] because one of our little angels has gone home," Lyons said.
She asked God to "help us, please, to understand that Your ways are higher than our ways."
Erickson cited the 22nd, 23rd, 31st and 47th Psalms as reminders that God is there for people, even in times of heartache when it seems He has forsaken them.
"We must be people who are ready to be led because we do have to move forward; we have to be ready to face tomorrow," he said.
The Rev. Jess Bousa, lead pastor of Restore Church in Havre de Grace, broke down the parts of the 23rd Psalm, talking in detail about each verse.
"The power of God is greater than the power of death and sin," Bousa said.
Two of Maleigha's softball teammates remembered her for her friendship, her determination on the field and her generosity.
"If you needed something, just come to her — she'd help you out," said Alissa Smith, 14, of Delta, Pa., who is in her first year with the Glory.
Alissa said Maleigha was the team's "No. 1 catcher."
"She wouldn't let anyone go by [home plate]," Alissa said.
Kierra Sewell, 18, of Aberdeen, played with Maleigha for two years. Sewell does not currently play with the Glory, as she has aged out of that team.
Sewell, who lives with her grandparents, said she and Maleigha bonded over issues they were having at school or home. The softball field was the one place that all went away, though.
"All the problems we had, it would just disappear, and the field was basically our second home," Sewell said.