Standing on a platform before guests assembled in a pavilion at Curtis Park in Stafford, James Wang held up three Chinese characters.
The characters represented the Chinese name of his daughter, Helen Wang, who died May 16—her birthday—when the car she was driving collided with a truck as she attempted to turn onto Kellogg Mill Road from the Abel Lake boat ramp parking area.
Helen’s grandfather gave her the Chinese name when she was born 17 years ago in Beijing, Wang said.
“We were never 100 percent for sure what the name meant,” he said.
He and his wife, Felicia, gave their second-born daughter the English name “Helen” when they applied for her American passport. It’s the name by which she was always known to her family and friends.
But after Helen’s death, her father started to research the meaning of her Chinese name. He shared what he learned to the more than 100 people gathered Sunday afternoon for a celebration of Helen’s life.
“It means ‘a person with strong, beautiful feathers in heaven,’” Wang said. “What a coincidence that the name given 17 years ago means she’s an angel.”
Wang said his daughter had a mission on earth during her short life. That mission, echoed by speaker after speaker, was to spread kindness.
Friends, family, teachers and employers described Helen as “the sweetest and brightest soul” they had ever met, someone who “made people feel important,” whose laugh and smile were contagious and who always left people feeling better than they did before.
“She was ‘the glue’ that made everything work,” said Andy Bertolet, Helen’s swim coach from the age of 8 until she moved to Stafford from Spotsylvania at age 14. “She just fit in and filled all the gaps. She did the hard work with a big, giant smile on her face and dragged five, six, seven people up with her.”
“We could all use more Helen,” Bertolet continued.
Her death has also sparked a youth-led movement to improve the safety of Stafford’s rural roads.
Immediately following the accident, a group of Helen’s classmates at Colonial Forge High School attended a Stafford Board of Supervisors meeting to voice emotional concerns about dangerous road conditions.
In response, the county closed the Abel Lake boat ramp and VDOT cleared overgrown vegetation that had obscured sight lines.
Colonial Forge students also worked with students from other county high schools to put together a survey requesting input from local drivers on the worst county roads. The survey has more than 1,000 responses.
“I’ve been so pleased and impressed with the young adults who have led this [road safety] movement,” said supervisor Tom Coen, who teaches A.P. government at Colonial Forge. “They have made a difference and they’ll continue to make a difference.”
The Stingrays swim team also established a Helen Wang Memorial Scholarship, which in two days raised more than $6,000 from the community.
It now has $31,000, said Danielle Euker, whose daughter Moira was Helen’s teammate on the Stingrays.
It will be presented to a team member who demonstrates sportsmanship and volunteerism in the spirit of Helen, Euker said.
“Helen wanted to change the world and she already is,” she said.
The weather Sunday afternoon ranged from drizzle to downpour, but guests wearing yellow—Helen’s favorite color—and bouquets of sunflowers—her favorite flower—made it seem like “just like a sunshine-y day,” said Euker, who organized the celebration with the Wang family.
“Helen always brought the sunshine,” she said.
Guests at the celebration were asked to take home packets of sunflower seeds, which were donated to the event by Lowe’s and American Meadows.
“Go home and plant a little bit of Helen,” Euker said.
Helen’s older sister, Lilly, wrote a song for the sibling she said was her best friend and will always be her role model.
She performed the song, called “Sunflower,” at the celebration.
“You’re a sunflower, a little funny / Even all the stars don’t glow as lovely,” she sang. “I’ll keep going just like you do, this sunflower’s waiting for you, waiting for you.”
Mountain View High School student Jade Alvillar was in the car accident with Helen. He shared what she said to him in one of the final moments of her life.
She told him she was happy.
“She said, ‘I’m content with life,’” he said. “So I wanted to share that with all of you. She was at peace.”