On their way to the Leesville Road High School senior assembly this summer, the friends of Lauren and Nick Jenkins made an important stop. At the end of a North Raleigh cul-de-sac stood a memorial the teenagers helped build to their friend. They’d stop by it often, some every day, sometimes in the middle of the night, lighting candles or simply sitting and talking together. They chose the spot to pose for pictures in their caps and gowns, the spot meant to feel near their friend and marking the tragedy that brought them all closer together.
Saturday they packed up most of the memorial, the flowers and pictures, and drove them to a new permanent space in the front yard of Lauren’s mother and stepfather’s house nearby. Starting at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, neighbors and friends of the family built a new gazebo among the tall, thin pine trees. From nails and wood they carved out a space in the world for their grief and for their memory, but more importantly a place to share.
“I’m going to go out there and meditate; I think the kids are going to go out there as much as they go to the memorial now and find a place of peace and relaxation,” Kristina Harms, Lauren and Nick’s mother, said. “Our home is a place where they can come and they’re unconditionally loved. These kids will be here, every single one of those kids will be here.”
There were tears, but it wasn’t a day overwhelmed by grief. Stories were told of trips to Florida, of driving around with no destination in mind, of lots and lots of laughing. Lauren and Nick were known as lively and energetic, creative and bright, and as the last people one would think could be taken from the Earth.
“She was just the kind of person you’d never expect that to happen to, like it was Lauren Jenkins, she was this beautiful, like super loud girl that everyone wanted to be,” said Allison Garrell, a friend of Lauren’s. “You just never would have thought her. It could be anyone.”
Lauren, 17, died in the woods near her home after hitting another car while turning left into her neighborhood March 17 after heading home from a Friday night birthday party in a North Raleigh hotel. Her body wasn’t found for two days after the crash and a neighbor said she was seen running from the accident with a head wound. Investigators said alcohol was found in Jenkins’ red Chevrolet Cruze but have not yet determined whether alcohol played a role. Harms said she still hasn’t seen her daughter’s autopsy, now four months after the crash.
Nick Jenkins, 23, died by suicide six weeks later. Harms said he was depressed after Lauren’s death and feared he would be found legally responsible for his sister’s death, as investigators suspected he had purchased the alcohol found in the car. She said he had dealt with mental illness. Nick had not been charged with a crime and Harms said he denied buying the alcohol.
“The loss of one child is so traumatic that your brain can only comprehend so much,” Harms said. “And then when I lost Nick ... I don’t think straight all the time.”
In building the gazebo, Harms said friends and family were fulfilling the wishes Nick had in remembering Lauren. In the days after her death, he built a garden in the family’s backyard and urged his and her friends to paint stones to lay among the plants. Saturday afternoon the teenagers made those stones from concrete, writing messages and their names before they dried, and adorning them with colored rocks. Harms said she expects her daughters’ friends will take a certain ownership of the gazebo and by the afternoon they had planned to decorate it. She said she was touched by the work and thoughtfulness of her neighbors in building the memorial.
So many people feel like they’re alone in whatever life situations they’re in, but they’re not alone. When you realize there are people that care, you can make any situation a lot brighter.
“We’ve got an amazing community,” Harms said. “The graciousness, kindness of the community, it takes a tribe. So many people feel like they’re alone in whatever life situations they’re in, but they’re not alone. When you realize there are people that care, you can make any situation a lot brighter.”
Heather Habets and her husband, Ben, helped organize the construction of the gazebo with Tom Oliver, a neighbor who witnessed Lauren’s crash but hadn’t previously known the family. She said a couple dozen people coming together and building the memorial is a sign of community you don’t see much of anymore.
“When I see this here today, a lot of people know each other, a lot of people don’t know each other,” Heather Habets said. “I just wish people could be conscious daily on what true humility is all about. It seems like we’ve lost it, it’s left behind in our world of technology.”
Lauren and Nick’s friends said the original memorial, built near the woods where Lauren’s body had been found, became a meeting place for them. They expect the new memorial will play a similar role.
“The memorial has been kind of a meeting point for everyone since it’s happened,” Garrell said. “I’ll come up to the memorial and you’ll just meet all these new people, you’ll meet people who knew Lauren, or people who just knew Nick or some of the neighbors. There’s just always somebody out there. Everyone keeps it maintained, keeps it clean.
“Some people when they see me there every day, they don’t really understand it,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Why are you going out there? Isn’t that weird?’ It’s such a peaceful place. When her grandpa went out there he was like this is where she would have wanted to be, all the birds are chirping, all the trees are nice. It’s a really pretty place to be.”
Harms calls the group of young friends “the kids” as if they’re also her own, and in turn they call her Mama Jenkins. Now that summer is over and most have graduated, many lives will likely become more complicated, but everyone connected to the family promises to stay there for one another.
“We want Miss Kristina to know she’s not alone, we’re all in here with her,” Dallas Apolinar said. “Overall this brought us closer and opened our eyes.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson