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A tragedy has struck North Washington Elementary School, and the students and staff are trying to cope with an unimaginable loss.
Tristan Yeager, 11, was a fifth-grade student at the school. Just before noon Sunday, Tristan lost his life in a two-vehicle accident on Perryville Road in Mercer County.
Amanda Mattingly, principal of NWES, said she received a call about the accident Sunday afternoon. Monday, she and her staff were preparing to consult their students as many of them learned the news of their classmate’s death.
“He was a friend to many, just a really good friend to a lot of people,” Mattingly said of Tristan. “He was one that was always looking to help others; not for recognition or a pat on the back, but just always helpful. He was the kind of kid who would hold a door open for an adult.”
Although Mattingly had served as Tristan’s principal, she said on Monday she learned that so many of his fellow students saw him as a good friend.
“And that’s across all of our fifth-grade classes,” she said. “They’ve all been touched by him.”
The loss of Tristan from North Washington was like the loss of a family member, according to Mattingly.
“We are a very close-knit school family. We are small and have very close relationships, and we operate very much like a family does, so we’ve really taken some family time today to begin the healing process and try to help young children understand something that, even as adults, we don’t understand,” she said.
To help in that healing process, she said counselors from all schools in the district were at North Washington on Monday, along with Communicare therapists and community members who are trained to work with children in this process and who are familiar faces to the students.
Mattingly said students had taken advantage of the support being offered, and she said many of them had also turned to their teachers and to their fellow students for support.
“Right now, they’ve really just kind of leaned on those they feel most comfortable with,” Mattingly said. “Those support personnel have served as a great guidance to us indirectly providing that service to the kids and guiding us on how to best respond.”
Although teachers are being sought for support by some students, those teachers also need support. Mattingly said teachers are touched by the relationships they have with their students, and they see them as “their kids.”
“The minute they walk through the doors, they instantly become your kid, and there’s a very close connection,” Mattingly said. “You build that relationship, and your dream starts to develop for that child as soon as they walk into your classroom, and you commit yourself to their success, so they’re having a difficult time right now.”
Mattingly said she was sending a letter home to parents of all fifth-grade students Monday to let them know of things to look for, as well as how to seek help and work with school staff as their children deal with the grief associated with losing a classmate. She said hopefully that will help everyone get through this difficult situation.
In addition to his classmates and friends at school, another local group will miss Tristan. For five years, he played in the local Blake Hoppes Football League, which has divisions for kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. John Graves had been one of Tristan’s coaches, and he remembered him as the kind of kid you wanted on your team.
“Tristan was just one of those kids you liked to coach. You tell him to block this guy, or make this play, and he would do it,” Graves said. “He always put himself in the right position, and he was always encouraging of the other players. He’s the kid that you want in this league.”
Graves said last season was an especially memorable one for his team, and for Tristan. Tristan had broken his arm and was not able to play for much of the season. In fact, Graves said, Tristan’s cast was removed just before the team played in the championship game in Campbellsville, though he was not cleared to play by his doctor. Since he couldn’t play and receive contact in the game, Tristan’s coaches talked with the coaches of the other team. Late in the game, and losing 19-0, Graves said Tristan was able to go in the game and carry the ball for a touchdown.
“We had worked it out with the other team so they didn’t hit him, and he got to score a touchdown in the last game of the season,” Graves said. “Now, the last time he ever played, he got to score a touchdown.”
Tristan’s mother, Misty, was a very active part of his play in the league, according to Graves. He said she was always at games and practices, and served as a team mom.
“If we needed cups, she got us cups. She knew what size helmet every kid wore, and she had everything written down for us. Tristan’s family was very involved and always supportive,” Graves said.
As for NWES, Mattingly said no memorial for Tristan is planned at this time, but she said students are brainstorming and sharing ideas about how that might be done in the future.
“We have witnessed an awesome sense of compassion and empathy for others from our student body today. The desire to pay tribute to Tristan in a lasting way is there. We are just not to the point of planning that out at this time. When we do, it will be important to us that we work with the family to best meet their needs and desires as well,” Mattingly said.
Staff members will continue to be attentive to the needs of NWES students.
“I think as the days continue on, we’ll continue to see that some needs may not surface for days or even weeks or months, so we just need to be ready to respond when we see that.”
Misty Yeager was hospitalized at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center in Danville as of press time, according to a hospital spokesperson. Her condition was not known.
Funeral services for Tristan will be conducted by Ransdell Funeral Chapel in Harrodsburg, but no arrangements had been made as of press time, according to a spokesperson at the funeral home.