DOWNERS GROVE – Just moments before an afternoon prayer service Feb. 22 at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, students from Downers Grove North High School huddled around a light post near the intersection of Main and Grant streets.
The light post has transformed into a memorial site for those paying respects to one of their own, junior Beth Dunlap. Bouquets of flowers and a pink stuffed toy laid at its feet. In the background, the school's marquee offered a glimmer of hope and comfort: "We are one. DGN strong."
On the morning of Feb. 19, Dunlap reportedly was struck by a car while crossing Main Street in the marked crosswalk in front of the high school. She sustained life-threatening injuries and remains in critical condition as a result of the incident. She was not expected to survive her injuries, school officials said.
The driver of the car, 51-year-old Joseph Kucharski of Naperville, was charged Feb. 22 with one count of felony aggravated DUI-alcohol/drugs and one count of felony reckless driving, according to a DuPage County State's Attorney's office news release.
Kucharski is expected to appear in bond court on Feb. 24, the release stated.
A preliminary investigation indicates that Dunlap, a 17-year-old junior, was crossing Main Street within the marked crosswalk, in conjunction with the “Walk” signal, when she was struck by a car traveling southbound, the release stated.
Kucharski, allegedly crossed into the oncoming lanes and entered the intersection at Grant Street on a red light, according to the release.
After the prayer service, sophomore Pedro Ibarra recalled the moment he heard about what happened to Dunlap.
"I was in shock," Ibarra said, adding it was hard for him to believe that an accident like this could happen in his community. "You don't hear about this stuff."
Though Ibarra did not know Dunlap personally, he paid his respects by visiting the impromptu memorial site.
Inside Gloria Dei, which is located across the street from the high school, more members of the Downers Grove North community came together to offer each other support.
Garrett Cook, a youth pastor from Community Christian Church, opened the service by asking attendees to partake in 18 seconds of silence for Dunlap before encouraging them to share 18 ways to describe her and her personality.
That prompt was inspired by a social media campaign that took place earlier this week for Dunlap. After the tragic accident, many turned to Facebook and Twitter and created the hashtag, 18 for 18, which honored Dunlap's volleyball jersey number and invited others to perform acts of kindness.
At the service, students, teammates and friends remembered Dunlap as a natural leader, a role model with a solid work ethic.
A photo of Dunlap was projected on a TV screen at the front of the church. She was sitting cross-legged at the edge of a boat with her head tilted back. The image portrayed her bright personality, big smile and hearty laugh that others recalled so well.
"We'd like to think that Beth is cheering us on now in the same way that she used to cheer some of you on the team," said the Rev. Tim Robertson, senior pastor at Gloria Dei, as he led a closing prayer. "Even those of you who were not on the volleyball team, she cheered you on and treated you like you were a part of her team – a beautiful example. I pray that example would continue on with our lives and through our memory."
During school announcements on Feb. 22, Downers Grove North principal Janice Schwarze asked the student body to consider ways to do something positive in Dunlap's memory.
"As a tribute to Beth, I ask you to think about ways to remember her spirit of strength while helping others," Schwarze said. "Beth’s number in volleyball was 18. Consider doing something positive in regards to this number in her honor. For example, you might perform 18 random acts of kindness. You might donate $18 to a charity. Do what feels right."
The student body also observed 18 seconds of silence in their classmate's honor.
"Those who know Beth know that she was a fierce competitor and a strong person," Schwarze said. "As hard as this loss is for all of us, I believe that she would want us to be strong and take care of each other. In fact, Beth’s family has ensured that she will take care of others by donating her organs. While this tragedy has forever changed the lives of many in our community, the lives of other people have new hope because of Beth."