Last fall, instead of celebrating the end of a successful harvest, the small farming community of Connersville, Indiana mourned the loss of 4-year-old Ayla Lou Wollyung, who was tragically killed in a farming accident. Ayla had been playing in her grandfather’s grain wagon, when she became trapped and could not get out. She later passed away from her injuries, leaving a grieving family and community behind.
Ayla’s death showed just how much a community can be brought together, when the town’s local farmers, and those from surrounding areas, all pitched in to finish the harvest so her family could have time to grieve. And since that moment, the town hasn’t stopped joining hands to support each other and honor the life of the little girl who loved princesses and playing in the dirty equally.
Ayla’s mother, Sarah Wollyung, 34, an ophthalmic and medical assistant from Liberty, Indiana, says that her little girl got the fairy tale ending that she deserved. The funeral home for her celebration of life service was decorated with pink balloons, stuffed animals, loved ones dressed in head-to-toe pink, a special sidewalk chalk drawing area for children, and a white princess castle that was donated by a local toy store.
“Ayla looked as if she was sleeping on clouds in her beautiful pink coffin,” she remembers. “My daughter looked beautiful.”
Since laying her daughter to rest with the beloved American Girl doll that Wollyung gifted her at her last birthday at her side because she “couldn’t bear the thought of my princess laying alone,” the grieving mother says she is in complete “survival mode,” operating on a day-to-day basis. She explains that she went through a divorce two years ago, which she thought would be the hardest time of her life, only to then lose her daughter, whom she had a very special bond with.
“She was my shadow and needless to say I am completely lost,” Wollyung says. “Ayla and I slept together every night since she was born and nights are the hardest or going a different way to and from work, because you no longer have to pick your child up. It’s the little things that you miss the most and all the things you take for granted. Ayla could make the biggest messes and I would give anything to clean up her messes up again.”
Wollyung has enrolled herself and her sons, Austin, 13, and Andrew, 11, in counseling, as they were witness to their sister’s death. She says while the support of counseling, family, friends, and God are helping them survive, the hardest part of coping with life after the loss of a child is knowing that there is no way to “fix” it.
“In life there are usually fixes,” she explains. “If the car breaks down, it can be fixed. If your marriage ends, it’s OK, because there could always be another down the road, but losing Ayla, or anyone for that matter, had no fix. There aren’t any words that I can hear or read that will fix this or just make me stop hurting. I will never completely rest, until I am in Heaven with Ayla.”
Ayla Lou is gone, but her memory is not forgotten. The beloved preschool class where she spent some of her short life learning and playing made sure to include her in their special graduation ceremony last month. Wollyung says that her daughter loved going to preschool, especially playing with her cousin, Josef, who was more like a twin to the little girl.
“Ayla would tell [her preschool teacher] Ms. Arin she would just do her work at home, because she wanted to go outside and play, but Ayla would hurry and finish her work and go outside and play,” remembers Wollyung.
Incredibly, the name “Ayla” actually means “strong oak,” so community members, Arin Singer and his family planted an oak tree at the school in Ayla’s memory. As part of the preschool celebrations, her classmates planted bright pink flowers (of course) around Ayla’s special tree and Josef added an extra flower for her. Like Ayla, her tree has become a part of this community’s roots, bringing people together and standing tall and strong — even when faced with the most difficult circumstances.
After planting flowers, the class sent balloons up to their classmate and watched as they soared into the clouds. Wollyung was able to participate in the ceremony.
She noted that the day was bittersweet — seeing the love that the children had for her daughter, but also facing what should have been a very different day with her daughter graduating. “I can’t say enough about how wonderful Ayla’s preschool was and how Ayla has left a lasting impression there,” says Wollyung.
Wollyung says that she could never begin to repay the tremendous amount of support and love her community has shown her, but she is trying, through the establishment of the Ayla Lou’s Butterflies foundation, which will host community family-friendly events and a scholarship for children in first through fifth grade to go towards sports, dance classes, preschool, or any other extras a family may not have otherwise been able to provide.
“I wanted to let Ayla’s light shine in other children and get the same chances that Ayla did,” Wollyung describes. “I may not be able to do her hair or buy her dresses, but I can spend the rest of my life keeping her memory alive.”
So far, Ayla’s memory has been kept alive with the first annual Princess Run, where runners donned tiaras and tutus. Wollyung is in the process of planning the first-ever annual Princess Ball on November 4, 2017.
“I think it will be a wonderful event for families,” says Wollyung. “Ayla loved dressing up, so this event will let all the little girls and women to dress like a princess for the evening.”
Wollyung’s life forever changed on November 5, 2016 when she lost her little girl, but she holds close a very special memory of her daughter coming back to her before she left that morning for just one more hug from her mom.
“I never thought when I woke up [that day] that I would lose my best friend, princess, and only daughter,” she says. “I am so thankful she came back for a second hug that day, because I will cherish that last moment with her, until I hold her again in heaven. I pray that everyone cherishes the moments with their children, even when they are driving them crazy. You never know what the day can bring.”