Six months ago instead of looking forward to a class field trip to Great America and graduating from eighth grade, Kaylah Lentine’s wide circle of friends were instead coping with the 14-year-old’s sudden death.
On May 24, Kaylah died of injuries she sustained from being hit by a pick-up truck trying to cross the intersection of Southwest Highway and Cicero Avenue—arguably one of the most dangerous corners for pedestrians in the Southland—while on her way to a morning awards assembly at Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School.
Kaylah was to have picked up an award for her leadership in Students Against Destructive Decisions. As president of the school organization, she took her position very seriously, encouraging friends and classmates not to take drugs or get into trouble with the law, but make positive life choices.
Instead she missed the morning bus and decided to walk to school from Hometown. Kaylah never made it to school that morning and died the next day of her catastrophic injuries. Her organs were donated to at least five recipients.
For Kaylah’s friends who gathered at Four Fields at 90th Street and Kostner for a balloon release marking the six-month anniversary of her death—Nov. 24—the wound is less raw. Still, there is an empty space in the halls of Oak Lawn Community High School, where Kaylah was to have started her freshman year this fall.
“I was supposed to have her in English class. It’s just weird knowing she’s not there,” her friend Brandon Muro said, a free spirit wearing a bow tie and pink, Converse high-tops. “She was the reason why all of our friends were together. It’s weird not having that strong bond with everyone.”
Brandon was one of four friends who organized the balloon release on Facebook, walking all the way from Party City at Ridgeland Avenue to Four Fields behind Christ Hospital carrying bundles of bright green, helium balloons.
“We looked like a parade,” Kaylah’s pal Emmi Kenny said, shivering in a sweatshirt.
Because their moms were close, the two girls spent the summer between seventh and eighth grade being best friends. During the long month of June after the accident, Emmi called Kaylah’s grandparents, Don and Renee Wilkinson, to help cope with her grief.
“I was really good friends with Kaylah and called her grandparents ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa.’ When she passed I didn’t want to separate from them so they’re kind of like my family now,” Emmi said.
While waiting for the others to show up, Emmi and Brandon reminisce with Ola Piotrowski and Angelica Holmes, two other classmates from the star-crossed, OLHMS class of 2012.
They share memories of playing on snowy afternoons and running to Kaylah’s house to watch “Jack Frost” and drinking hot chocolate, laughing at Brandon’s hapless gift-wrapping abilities when they were wrapping Christmas presents for needy kids as a school activity.
Angelica lost both of her grandfathers, but for the rest of them Kaylah's death is their first significant loss.
“I never thought something like this would happen,” Emmi said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, but being around my friends and talking and sharing memories about Kaylah really helped me. You can smile knowing you did all these things with her and just didn’t just say you knew her because she passed away. You were actually there for her all the time.”
Oak Lawn police are still investigating the accident, her family says. The driver, a 26-year-old, Chicago Ridge man, has not been charged. Authorities have up to a year to file charges—if any—including traffic citations.
But for Kaylah’s family, who are facing their first holidays without her, resolution is slow. The white pedestrian crossings lines at Southwest Highway and Cicero Avenue are even less visible on the street then they were six months ago.
A plan to make the IDOT-controlled intersection safer and compliant with federal disability standards by adding pork chop islands and a pedestrian crossing signal in Kaylah’s memory, lies dormant.
Kaylah’s grandfather, Don Wilkinson, said some have told them that she shouldn’t have been in the intersection in the first place. About all they know of the police investigation is that grand jury subpoenas were filed for Kaylah’s and the driver’s cell phone records.
Kaylah’s last text, to a girlfriend as she walked to OLHMS that morning, was at 8:03 a.m., joking about being late and wearing a dress to the awards assembly.
She was struck crossing the intersection at 8:13 a.m.
At the appointed time on Saturday afternoon, Kaylah’s friends and family released 40 bright green balloons into the purple dusk, remembering the bright, 14-year-old girl who passed her love for 1980s rock bands on to her friends, all of whom were born long after the bands' greatest fame.
“I look at back at our deep conversations,” Brandon said. “She always wanted me to be myself and proud of who I am. It has really helped with high school school and stuff. She inspired me to be myself and an all around good person.”