A Pilot Point family has taken an experience of intense grief and turned it into a catalyst for serving others.
The Friends of Vail held its fourth annual benefit dinner to raise money for children’s literacy, participation in equestrian events, involvement in sports and children’s ministry in an effort to honor the memory of Vail Johnson, a young girl who died unexpectedly in 2016.
“She was such an unusual child,” Vail’s mother, Susan Chance, said. “She was so kind to everybody and she loved to write books.”
A major focus of the night was the first installment in what is planned to be a series of books taken from words Vail wrote between 6 and 9 years old, “Vail’s Tales.”
“That was her dream, that’s what she wanted to do,” Susan said. “She knew she wanted to be an author. She already knew it, so it’s already come true.”
Vail’s stepfather, Chad Chance, echoed the happiness that Vail’s words can make a difference for other children.
“It’s sad, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “But it’s also a joy to know that she did so much by the age of 9. She did more than a lot of people do in their entire lives. She’s an author.
“The night that she passed away, she told us both she wanted to be an author when she grew up. Little did we know that she wouldn’t live another day, and she became an author. That was our vision and our dream to make that happen.”
The collection of four stories was co-authored by Ed Payne from Georgia and illustrated by Britt Sekulic from California, who were both at the dinner Saturday.
“That was the challenge, through her writing, to learn what she was about and learn about her spirit and then how to convey that meaning through the retold story,” Payne said.
He said he has been honored to be the co-author with Vail who has helped propel her stories to a wider audience.
“What’s been amazing is that all of these stories were written by a girl between the ages of 6 and 9,” Payne said. “And even though I’ve helped retell the stories, it still was her spirit and maturity of someone so young. We’ve got several hundred people here tonight that are brought together by this child whose story is now reaching across the country.”
And Sekulic hopes the children who get exposed to “Vail’s Tales” and any subsequent books are inspired to create stories themselves.
“We hope it will encourage young writers as well and young illustrators to let it be an example that you can start as young as that and create something amazing,” she said.
Susan found Payne and Sekulic through her cousin, Katherine Bennett, who worked with Payne at CNN.
Sekulic is working with Vail’s mother, Susan Chance, to create a campaign using Vail’s words that can be put into schools around the country.
“Out of that book, we have also started to make posters to take to schools for antibullying,” she said. “And they’re her words out of that book. ‘Real friends like you for who you are, not what you look like,’ and the illustration that goes with it.”
Another initiative that has been dear to Susan and Chad is making outdoor classrooms a reality.
“They’ve created a unique classroom and an area for our kids to be outside, and that’s just a great learning environment,” Pilot Point ISD Superintendent Dan R. Gist said. “Kids learn in different ways in different atmospheres.”
He also expressed gratitude for the Friends of Vail who helped fund a concession stand at the softball field, a sport that Vail loved.
“All of your money goes toward programs that we stress about and pray about,” Chad said to the crowd inside the Gateway Center at UNT on Saturday.
One of those programs, the children’s ministry at Midway Church, received $50,000 from the foundation, Chad said.
Members of the Pilot Point community came out, as did people from across the country. There was a large crowd milling around the silent auction throughout the first part of the evening, and a table was set up with copies of “Vail’s Tales” on hand next to Payne and Sekulic, who were signing the books.
The last four items of the live auction Saturday night were intended to fund the next outdoor classroom the Friends of Vail can plan and set up.
“Maybe we can get a classroom built this evening,” Chad said.
More than $20,000—the total needed for the classroom supplies—was raised through the sale of those items, which included a hog hunt, two different cabin stays and a collection of wines.
“We did it!” Chad said. “$21,000.”
Overall, more than $85,000 was raised Saturday.
“It’s such a blessing to have our friends and family out here,” Chad said. “It’s so special to Susan and I, just because they come out and support the Friends of Vail and just celebrate the memory of Vail, our daughter.”
The family is still grieving—Vail’s older sister Jade was not present because the public events do not help her process the loss of her sister. But for Susan and Chad, seeing the community honor Vail’s memory helps them have a purpose in light of her death.
“This tonight, I’m full of joy because we’re celebrating her and people can remember her through her writing, which is so cool,” Susan said.