The Strength of Sisterhood
by Marisa van Winkle
Photos by Sarah Swanson

The buzz of my phone on the morning of April 9, 2009, startled me as I was taking notes. I was certain the call from my friend Nick could not be anything important, I silenced the buzzer. A few seconds later, he called again. Beginning to get agitated, I sent him a text that read, "In class…"

His response, "Call me now!"

As I read those three words my heart started beating faster and I began to get nervous. I left the classroom, so I could call Nick.

"Hi Winks," answered Nick. "How are you?"

A bit annoyed I replied, "Nick, I am fine. What is the matter?"

Then I received the news I would never forget. "Courtney Stewart may have been killed in a car accident early this morning. The police will not let her mom identify the body yet, but the car fits the description of her car. Nick Adenhart's body is also alleged to be in the car as well, and I know they were together."

At this point I had no reaction; no tears or words were able to come out. There were a million thoughts racing through my head. Courtney Stewart was a friend of mine and a member of my sorority, Alpha Chi Omega, which I also happened to be president of at the time.

I was thinking about how I had seen her a few days before and how I may have not been as nice to her as I could have been.

She could not be gone, I did not want her to remember me that way.

"Winks? Marisa, Marisa," asked Nick with concern. "Are you there?"

"Yes, I am sorry Nick. I don't know what to do, but I do know I have to collect my things from class and get back to the sorority house. Please do not tell any more of the girls until we know for sure what has happened. Will you please keep me updated?" "Of course I will! I will be at the Alpha Chi Omega house soon to help you," responded Nick with compassion.

After grabbing my things I called my friend Laura to come pick me up. As I got into Laura's car I began to tell the story to her, only to break down sobbing. I was scared and confused about what would happen next. I was the 20-year-old sophomore president of a sorority, about to deal with a crisis.

I would be the guiding force for about 100 women who would look to me for support. The next few hours seemed like eternity as I waited for the news. Laura and I sat on my computer reading articles posted about the crash. The reality of the situation hit me as I realized that not only would I be giving support to my sisters, but I would also be the spokesperson for all media-related outlets. The crash involved a high- profile baseball player. Nick Adenhart, of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, just pitched the game of his life, there was no doubt that the media would be involved. Soon after this realization, I remembered the crisis management plan our sorority has in place for situations like this. I had created this plan about a year ago in my previous position as Vice President of Risk Management. I had never been more grateful to have a plan that told me what I needed to do.

The first step told me that I needed to get our 100 members together at the sorority house. I was not to let anyone other than members, close friends or direct help into the house. I sent a mass text to all the members saying, "Hi ladies, as some of you may have heard there has been an accident involving a member of ours. Please come to the sorority house as soon as possible. I want all of our sisters to be together."

Soon after sending the text to the members, Nick arrived at the sorority house with Courtney's roommate, Katie. We all waited in an upstairs bedroom for the news, and the call from Courtney's mom to Katie. As we were waiting I would go downstairs to check on my sisters to make sure they were okay and ask if they needed anything.

As I returned upstairs, there was a sinking feeling in my stomach. As soon as I entered the bedroom Katie's phone began to ring. She looked down, only to look up and give me the look that spoke a million words and feelings, Courtney's mom was calling.

Katie answered the phone and in a matter of seconds she started crying. Courtney had been identified as one of the people killed in the car accident. The car had been hit by a drunk driver who had ran a red light on Orangethorpe Avenue and Lemon Street. Courtney, Adenhart and two more passengers were on their way to a local country line dancing spot, In Cahoots.

Before Katie spoke the news, I fell to my knees and began crying. Nick quickly picked me up and held me. I knew at that moment I had to pull myself together and be strong for our chapter. The walk down the stairs to tell my sisters the news is forever engraved in my head. As I entered the TV room, I took a deep breath in and gave the news: "Sisters, Courtney has been identified as the driver of the car. She is now an angel watching over all of us."

The silence in the room was suddenly filled with the sound of tears. I immediately grabbed tissue boxes from around the house and brought them to the girls. As I went to the other room to make the necessary phone calls, I told them to invite all their friends over if they needed a place to comfort people. As I began to walk to the next room to follow the steps on the crisis management plan, the sorority house phone rang.

"Alpha Chi Omega," I answered.

"Hi, this is TMZ would you be willing to answer a few questions for us?" asked the voice on the other end of the line.

My heart sank. Would this be happening all day? "No, I am sorry we are unable to do that at this point. We would appreciate space at this time so we can mourn the loss of our sister and friend. Thank you! Bye."

Not wanting any of the younger members to have to deal with the phone calls I put my friend Laura on phone duty. She simply just had to say there would be no comment when someone called. That one call from TMZ was just one of the many from various news and gossip stations across the span of the day. Now that I had the phone taken care of, I could begin to call the rest of the people on my list. First was Campus Police; I informed them of the death. Once I was on the phone with them they informed me they would make drive-bys near the house to make sure there was no suspicious behavior in regards to media. They also supplied me with a direct number in case of any emergency or if we felt uncomfortable at any time. Once I hung up the phone with them, I realized I could do this. I had people outside of the sorority supporting us.

The next call I made was to the chapter adviser Lynn Bower. I tried to hold it together as I told her the news, but I couldn't.

"Take a deep breath Marisa, it will be okay," responded Lynn to my tears.

I eventually pulled myself together and was able have somewhat of a conversation with Lynn. She was out of town but she told me not to worry, she would take care of getting another adviser there in her place. The next few calls went to the Risk Management Adviser and House Director.

Now that I had taken care of the calls within our local sorority, it was time to call the Greek Life Coordinator at our campus and our National Headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. As I called Nick Katz, the Greek Life Coordinator, the compassion in his voice shocked me. He let me know that he would be at the house soon and he would have someone from the counseling office come as well. Next, I called our headquarters. This was the last phone call on the list.

I became numb in telling the story. I shared it with ease, almost as though it was a recording. Headquarters was so happy that I had followed the crisis management plan and let me know that the Public Relations Representative from San Diego, Karina, would drive up to help me with releasing a press statement.

Until Karina arrived, the following hours were spent waiting and waiting. I spent a lot of my time pacing back and forth in the living room and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for all our guests. TMZ had now published that we "were uncooperative and unwilling to talk about the loss."

Our National Headquarters had that immediately taken down from the website. Due to my number being posted on an Alpha Chi Omega website, many reporters began to call me instead of calling the chapter phone. I began to let all numbers go to voicemail because the news reporters would lie saying they were an old sorority member just to get information from me.

I could not believe the disrespect the media had for the situation we were in. They were relentless in trying to get their story and disregarded the feelings of our chapter.

By the time Karina arrived, TMZ was staked out across the street from our house and both ABC and CBS news vans were outside our garage waiting for me to release my statement. Karina briefed me on the statement and the procedure. She told me that I did not have to go on camera, and she would be right there with me the whole time.

As I walked out the back gate I said a quick prayer to God to help me get through these next few minutes. I introduced myself to the news crew, and ABC 7 asked, "Are you sure you do not want us to film you reading the statement?"

"No, thank you," I responded. "You can record me reading it but I do not feel comfortable being filmed at this time."

The response from the anchor still sends chills up my spine, "Are you sure? Courtney would have wanted you to."

"What?" I was thinking in my head. How did this lady think she knew what Courtney would have wanted. I looked over at Karina and I knew she was thinking the same thing. "Marisa is ready to read her statement," Karina said. "As she told you before you can record, but not film her."

I then began reading my statement, "All of us are deeply saddened and shocked at the terrible loss of our dear friend and sister, Courtney Stewart. Our thoughts, prayers and love go out to her family and friends during this incredibly difficult time, and also to those mourning the loss of the other victims in this tragedy.

We appreciate all the support we have already received from the university and the campus community. Thank you for respecting our privacy and space as we grieve." As I read the last word, they turned the cameras on and began filming and asking questions. I could not believe they would consider doing such a thing. I immediately turned around and ran towards the back gate.

As I got inside I saw 20 faces staring at me, so I knew I had to be strong. I explained what happened, so I would not start to cry, and ran into the chapter room. The chapter room was secluded from the rest and I knew no one would find me there. As I shut the door, I sobbed and sobbed. How was I going to do this? The circumstances were already tough, but throwing the media in there was not going to make it easier. In the midst of my tears I heard a knock on the door.

"Winks are you in there? It's Nick."

I opened the door to find him standing there, Diet Coke in hand. For the next half hour him and I sat and talked. He was a good friend of Courtney's and was the last person to see her before she drove away. We were both going through a range of emotions and knew we would be a strong support system for one another. I wiped the mascara away from my face and the tears were gone, and we were ready to go back out.

Upon returning to the house, I saw everything running pretty smoothly. By this time Nick Katz had arrived from school with a counselor. The counselor was chatting with the girls in the house, letting them know where they could go and talk to someone if they needed to. While this was happening an outpouring of food arrived as local restaurants and alumni donated food. The support from the local community was amazing and counter balanced the hatred I had for the local news stations.

As I looked around the house at the moment, I saw how many people Courtney had affected. The house was full of Alpha Chi Omegas, members of other sororities, and members of fraternities. I knew at this moment we needed to do something to remember her tonight. I chatted with a few people and decided a memorial in the backyard would be the best thing.

Planning for the memorial would keep me busy for the next few hours.

As the word spread about the memorial, I began to collect candles and set up chairs in the backyard. The time for the memorial came and it could not have gone any better. As each person entered, they received a candle and sat down. By the time we started there was only standing room and close to 200 people in the backyard. The mood was relaxed, and country music — Courtney's favorite — was playing in the background.

When it was time to begin I welcomed and thanked everyone for coming. I then explained that one by one people could get up, go to the front of the crowd and share a memory that involved Courtney. People shared stories of being at In Cahoots with her, memories of her "blonde" moments, and her kind friendship. I know Courtney was watching over us, laughing at herself, and guiding us all how to respond. As the memorial ended, the day was finally coming to a close.

Everyone began to leave the house, except for the members of Alpha Chi Omega. Our sisterhood had strengthened so much over the day that we did not want to leave one another. So we cleared out the living room and put extra mattresses we had on the floor.

We stayed up all night talking and remembering everything Courtney. She truly made an impact on every one of us.

The next few days, weeks and months passed and there was not a day that I did not think of Courtney. Within a week of her death I planned a celebration of life at CSUF more than 500 people, and a exactly a month after her death all of our members were participated in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) walk in Huntington Beach, where we raised over $10,000.

I continued to be the strength of the chapter, staying positive so the rest of the chapter could depend on me.

Today, it has been a little over a year since Courtney has passed away, and I still think of her daily. I made a point to have our members participate in the MADD walk this year and we remembered her death in April by all going to an Angel's Game.

As tough as dealing with the death of a friend is, I am grateful for the experiences I have learned from it. I am more mature for dealing with this and still slowly mourn the loss of my sister and friend.

I know now to never take people around me for granted and to always say kind words as they walk away.

I know how special each moment is with those you love.