A Granddaughter Gone Too Soon

31 July 2016

By AYESHA ROBERTS

Ann Maner, 60, lives in the small town of Norwood, N.C. She works in the next city over, Albemarle at Lowe’s Home Improvement where she has worked for the last 17 years as a head cashier. February 7, 2016 she would receive heartbreaking news that would change her life forever.

Maner still remembers the devastating phone call she had received nearly six months ago as if it was only yesterday. Sunday evening, just moments before the start of the Super Bowl, Maner received a phone call from a family friend. “I was at home watching tv and got a call from Jackie, saying to call Mrs. Higgins, something had happened to my granddaughter, Kayla.” After hanging up she immediately called Alice Higgins, Kayla’s paternal grandmother and as she listened to sobbing in the background she was given a detective’s number by a friend of Mrs. Higgins and instructed to give him a call. At this point she knew something bad had happened and once she had gotten in contact with detective Burt Walker of Garner, N.C. Police Department, he informed her that her granddaughter and been involved in a hit and run accident. Unable to fully grasp the news, Maner began questioning where her granddaughter was and if she was ok.

“He just paused and said ma’am I’m sorry to have to tell you but she was killed by the driver.” He then informed her that after investigating they believe it happened around 3 a.m. and that she had not been found until later that morning around 8 a.m. on the side of the rode by a passing couple. “I fell apart, started crying and just couldn’t believe it.” After taking some time to digest the news of her granddaughter’s untimely death, Maner knew that she would have to somehow pull herself together and be the one to call and inform Kayla’s two sisters. This family was already acquainted with loss, as Maner had lost her daughter in a car accident five years prior, and her son in law only two years later due to a blood clot. Steal dealing with the death of their parents, Maner struggled to inform her two granddaughters about their sister’s death. She knew their family had already been through so much and was afraid this would push them over the edge. The next morning, Maner woke up and began looking for information on the internet regarding the incident, and there it was in big bold letters, Kayla Dion Higgins, 22, killed in pedestrian collision with hit-and-run driver at Interstate 70 business and Yeargan Road in Garner, North Carolina

Maner explains the difficulty of the week leading up to her granddaughter’s funeral. Arrangements had to be made in such a short time and it was up to Maner and Kayla’s two sisters to make them. “I mean how do you plan a funeral for a 22-year-old? That’s all I could think about, it just didn’t seem right”, still it had to be done. With the help of Kayla’s sister’s, preparations were made. It was decided that Kayla should be cremated, as her mother was but have a viewing and funeral prior to doing so. Maner explains how Pink and Green were Kayla’s favorite colors because she had always wanted to be a part of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, so they spent the week trying to find the perfect outfit in those colors to send their love one off in. “The day of her funeral was emotionally exhausting, many of our family members had come, her friends and many of her classmates”. “The service was beautiful, so many friends and family has sent flowers, there were pictures all throughout the funeral home of Kayla and her pastor at the church she went to did the service, overall I think she would have been happy with the turn out.” After the services and everyone parted their ways Maner and her two granddaughters along with Kayla’s two-year-old daughter, who was in her oldest sister’s care, went back to Maners home, exhausted from the day to rest.

Kayla and her 2-year-old daughter Ava

A few days later, Kayla’s youngest sister would have to return to school leaving her oldest sister and Maner to begin the search for answers regarding Kayla’s death. Two days after the death of Maners’ granddaughter, a Raleigh cab driver by the name of Mohamed Sawih Dwedari turned himself in. Maner struggled to understand how a person could hit someone and just leave them. She began taking action in regards to her granddaughter’s case and was determined to seek some sort of justice. She hired an attorney in pursuit of filling a civil case against Dwedari and remained in contact with Detective Walker, speaking at least once a week to go over any updates in the case.

One of Maner’s major concerns, was why her daughter was out walking so late that night in the first place. Kayla had been living with Maner for the last two years but had recently moved to Raleigh after being accepted into Healing Transitions, a non-profit organization offering services to individuals facing alcohol, drug addictions as well as mental health challenges. While Kayla did not have a substance abuse problem she suffered from an eating disorder and depression after the loss of her parents. Maner supported Kayla’s decision to join the program as it would help her get into college, find a job and help her get her life together for her as well as her daughter, Ava. “I knew how much Kayla wanted to get help and get her life together and knew that Norwood wasn’t the place to do it. As much as I wanted her to stay, there’s just nothing here in this small town. I tried to get her into counseling and stuff like that but there’s no schools close or many job opportunities here so I understood why she wanted to leave.”

After a conversation with detective Walker, Maner was informed that not long after Kayla entered the program she had gone to the hospital after complaints about not feeling well. After she was released she called Healing Transition[AR1] s in order to get a ride back but was told she was out past curfew and could not return. With nowhere else to go and no phone Kayla then tracked down two officers who called the program in order to see if Kayla could come back for the night but they were denied as well. Maner was distraught and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to come back that night. “All I could think was that this could have been prevented and my granddaughter could still be here had they just let her come back, at least for the night”.

Unable to understand Healing Transitions decision, Maner scheduled a meeting with the executive director Chris Budnick. Budnick expressed his condolences and took accountability for the incident saying that they had failed as a program when one of the receptionist had taken it upon themselves to deny Kayla’s return, even after being asked by the police. He explained to Maner that they have never turned anyone down in the past when the police reached out looking for housing for the night even if temporary and that he had committed time into making sure this would never happen again by creating an open amends letter to those who seek services, their families and their community.

In the amends, Budnick addresses the need to turn the looking glass inward and conduct a regular inventory of clinical and administrative polices. He also acknowledges the programs part in Kayla’s death when he says, “Last week I found myself approaching a police department to apologize for failing them. When they reached out to us in the middle of the night seeking services for a young woman we told them “no.” “we can’t help her tonight.” She was killed within hours of this decision leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter. I told the officer that we pledged to do better”.

As Maner sought answers she still had a difficult time accepting Budnicks pledge to do better. “I felt he at least took responsibility, apologized but it didn’t leave me with much. I didn’t know how to process that info because had they said yes I felt like there would have a different outcome that she would still be here. I was torn between being angry and still searching for more answers.”

As Maner continues to seek justice for Kayla she explains how she is able to get through each day, “I say my prayers every night and try to put one foot in front of the other in the morning. I talk to Ava and my granddaughters and it helps. We have to go forward it not gonna change anything or bring her back we just have to have faith that things are going to get better and that we will get the answer we need and justice for Kayla.” As Maner waits for developments in her granddaughter’s case it is her hope that somehow Dwedari will have to be held accountable and if possible, punished.

Ann Maner reading to Great-Granddaughter, Ava. She explains, “Ava helps to keep me going, I see so much of Kayla in her.”

“Kayla was a young girl, who had a future, who had a child, who was trying to get her life together to better herself. She was caring, big hearted and deserved so much more out of life than the hand she was dealt and I will not give up on her, I will not give up on getting the justice she deserves.”

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