Vigil recognizes recent deaths of youths

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec / Between 200 and 300 people attended a vigil on Wednesday outside Altoona Area High School to remember 17-year-old Altoona student Emma Auker and other local youths who have died recently.

Even as wind gusts blew a few lights out, the crowd gathered Wednesday outside Altoona Area High School shared their flames and relit each other’s candles as they prepared to sing “Amazing Grace.”

The crowd, between 200 and 300 strong, gathered two days after 17-year-old Altoona student Emma Auker lost her battle with brain cancer.

But those who addressed the vigil honored several local youths who have died tragically in recent months: Mikayla Focht, 18, of Duncansville, killed Friday in an ATV crash; Madison Grace Shura, 8, of Bellwood, who died Friday of a tumor; and Danielle Hurd, 16, of Altoona, who died in January after an extended illness.

“If you take the pulse of our county, it’s almost like we’re suffocating. Like it’s hard to breathe,” said Micah Marshall, pastor and executive director of the Refuge Youth Network.

Marshall and Altoona pastor Matt Stumpf called on the crowd — young children, high school classmates and parents — to grieve freely and accept their feelings in the wake of the latest loss.

“I’ve been angry this week, to be honest. I’ve had moments when I’m frustrated,” Stumpf said, describing his own teenage children. “And I hurt because they hurt.”

The speakers called on the community to come together while some in the crowd embraced and spoke in hushed tones. Some teenagers laughed and chatted, a reaction Stumpf didn’t discourage.

“Remember those moments,” he said of Auker. “When she was at gymnastics, when she did something for the first time and you said, ‘Yes! That was awesome.’ Make sure you’re sharing those moments. Laugh with each other.”

As sunset approached, the crowd lit their candles and stood quietly, some casting their eyes down.

It would be a difficult time, high school Assistant Principal Jason McGinnis had reminded them.

“There are no good words to say. (But) no one is alone during this time,” he said. “Look around: You are not alone.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.