The bittersweet chorus of “Happy Birthday” echoed around Pilot Point Intermediate School on May 15, hanging in the still and quiet air as friends and family gathered to honor Vail Johnson.
It would have been the Pilot Point student’s 12th birthday.
Johnson passed away suddenly in 2016 from a heart condition. She was 9-years-old, vivacious and kind-hearted, with a deep-rooted passion for writing and horseback riding. She lived in a world comprised of great wonders and unconditional loves – softball, the color green, reading and butterflies among them.
Although many tears were shed Wednesday afternoon, the occasion was not a sad one.
Vail’s friends and family gathered on her birthday to celebrate the continuation of her legacy, as well as the completion of a two-year-long project at Pilot Point Intermediate: Vail’s Outdoor Classroom.
The entire sixth-grade class attended the new facility’s ribbon cutting ceremony, dressed in lime green T-shirts to honor their friend. Vail’s teachers and family relaxed on the new classroom’s benches and tables – all green – facing a whiteboard set on tan and white stone. Two benches closest to the whiteboard were custom-made with the words FRIENDS OF VAIL carved into the backrest.
Lime green balloons fluttered playfully in the wind, and at the back of the learning space a freshly planted young tree, Vail’s Tree, swayed gently with the breeze. It was the first sunny day Pilot Point had seen in a week.
“Vail has left a legacy in our community, and especially in our schools,” Pilot Point ISD Superintendent Dan R. Gist said during the event, adding that remembrances of Vail are sprinkled across the district. From a reading nook in the elementary school library to the new concession stand at Pilot Point’s softball complex, Vail’s energy and generous spirit are alive and well.
The new outdoor classroom will serve as one more reminder of an enthusiastic little girl with bright eyes, big dreams and wisdom beyond her years.
Susan and Chad Chance, Vail’s mother and stepfather, spoke at the event.
“Susie and I shed some tears this morning,” Chad said, addressing Vail’s peers and classmates. “It’s hard to believe. We see you guys growing up, and she’s locked in a time capsule at 9-years-old. She was such a sweet, sweet soul. Her spirit lives on, and this is just a part of what she’s left behind.”
An avid writer, Vail completed several short stories throughout her life. Now, her parents are working with an author in Atlanta to rewrite and publish her original works.
Vail’s legacy also lives on through the Friends of Vail Foundation, a nonprofit started by her family with a mission to “inspire learning, strengthen community, and demonstrate the power of the gospel of Christ.” Donations to the foundation are what funded Vail’s Outdoor Classroom.
Vail’s family said they are beyond grateful for the love and support they’ve received from the community.
“It’s been a very emotional week for me, as a mom,” Susan said. “With Mother’s Day – you never think that your baby’s not going to be there for Mother’s Day.”
During the ceremony, the sixth-grade presented Chad and Susan with a memory book filled with stories of their time with Vail. They also gave them a signed T-shirt and small, hand-decorated stones to place at the base of Vail’s Tree.
As the sixth-graders prepare to enter middle school, Susan said, she wants them to remember her daughter’s kindness.
“I want you to be good friends to each other, no matter what,” Susan said. “I want you to lift each other up and be kind, because that’s what Vail did.”
During the ceremony, Susan chose to read from one of Vail’s upcoming books titled, “A Good Friend.”
First, Susan read the original text that Vail wrote in class the week she passed away. Then, she read the reworked version, which has been adjusted by author Ed Payne:
“There are times when new friends can come into the picture,” Susan read. “They can make others jealous, but there’s an answer in scripture. Jesus said, “Love each other just as I have loved you,” so there’s room for everyone, not just one or two.”
Following the reading, throngs of Vail’s classmates and friends assisted her parents in cutting a lime green ribbon and officially opening Vail’s Outdoor Classroom. Students embraced Chad and Susan, shedding tears and sharing memories.
“Thank you to everyone who has made this possible,” Susan said as the celebration began to wane. “We’re going to continue on until we have no more money or we’re old and can’t walk.”
“We have a belief that these classrooms can be all over the country,” he said. “You can always say you had the first one, because there will be many more to follow.”