EFFINGHAM — In a packed, tear-filled chapel, family and friends said one last goodbye to 7-year-old Willow Long.
More than 150 people gathered at First Baptist Church in Effingham, supporting the DeRyke and Long families as an entire community takes the first steps in trying to heal from the tragedy.
"We want to be reminded today that we are in a place of worship and that's what we do we worship our God, God who didn't create death but gave us a place to go," said the Rev. Dan Tarno of Grace Bible Fellowship Baptist Church in Canton, Texas, who opened the ceremony.
Family members acknowledged the acute loss everyone feels for Willow but also the power she had to unite her family and community.
"There was something that Willow not only looked for, but something Willow wanted to deliver, which was love," said one family member. "To be able to put a smile on mom's face, grandmother's face, dad's face, uncles, aunts, that's who she was. I know it's been a difficult time for not just family, but friends and those who looked for her but that (search) was put together, that love was driven for this angel."
Thomas Long, Willow's father, struggled to explain what his daughter means to him and the obvious impact she had on the community.
"I've thought and I've prayed and I've prayed and I've thought about what I could say about Willow and I realized that there's nothing that I can tell everyone here about Willow that you don't already know," he said. "She was wonderful and perfect, and we all loved her."
Long said he hoped his message to his daughter could be shared in the hearts of the community.
"You're with the Lord now safe and free and you have eternity with him forever," he said. "You will always be my little angel. Please don't be sad for me Willow. One day, you'll open your eyes, and I'll be there with you to hold you as we walk through the kingdom of heaven with our lord. I will always love you Willow, and I miss you so very much."