Jackson Adams and Tony Huffman
Effingham Daily News
A sea of lit candles were raised around a single, newly planted weeping willow tree Wednesday evening by the many who mourn 7-year-old Willow Long.
"I consider the weeping willow an expression of the sadness Watson is feeling," said Rhonda Goeckner, a Watson woman who donated and planted the tree outside Watson Civic Center with her husband, Nick, as a reminder to the community of what they've lost.
Hundreds of people gathered, from the community who knew her to those who didn't but searched long hours for her safe return. They lit candles and offered memories of a girl always happy, always cheerful, and always willing to show the people she loved that she cared.
"Just to let you know what kind of a girl this was, every time she got on the bus she would give me a hug. I know she's in a better place, but there's no more hugs from Willow," said Long's school bus driver Allen Birch, who took her every morning to South Side School.
The support of hundreds is the only thing keeping Thomas Long, Willow's father, going. After arriving from Texas on Tuesday before the body was found, Long said he has found a constant source of support from a community who has come together.
"Obviously, I'm hurting and grieving, but I'm so overwhelmed by this community and they've kept me in one piece," he said. "I
wouldn't be standing here right now, being able to talk to you, if
there weren't all of these people there for her."
Many in the audience couldn't hold back tears as prayers and remembrances were offered on Willow's behalf.
“This is devastating,” said Kendra Kuhlman, a Mason native who was one of the many who volunteered to search, bring food and supplies, and lend an ATV. “We held out so much hope that someone would find her.”
For her and many others, the glimmer of hope now in spite of the tragedy is the community pulling together for Willow and one another.
“I'm proud to say I'm from this community,” said Kuhlman.
MacKenzey White, a senior at Effingham High School, said students are reeling from news of Willow's death.
“People at school just can't believe this happened,” said White. “Nobody understands why someone would do this.”
White and her mother, Paula, both searched Sunday, hoping and praying for the best.
“I hope this brings people closer to God,” said White. “Not push them away.”
Long said he's glad to see the community support a girl who meant the world to him and meant so much to so many others.
"I love her and everyone is with her, and I'm so happy that she's looking down on us now," he said. "I'm so sorry that this happened to her, but I know that she's safe and I know that she's doing great now."