BY PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA — It was the kind of adversity that could have devastated the morale of a small, poor, black city school. Instead, St. Martin de Porres School of this capital city turned the disappearance of a teacher’s children into a rolling comber of prayer and hope, drawing the neighborhood into communal acts of charity.
According to school principal Sandra Leatherwood, the story began near midnight on Aug. 26, when Darcel “Dawn” Sanders, 18, was closing up the Blockbuster Video store on Garner’s Ferry Road where she worked. Her mother, Christine, a second-grade teacher at St. Martin, was busy planning for the next day’s start of the academic year and asked her other daughter, Candacy, 24, to pick up the teen. Candy was already in her pajamas but left in her white Ford Escort to drive her sister home. Two hours went by, and the parents became alarmed.
Christine and William Sanders began searching for their children. Neither young woman was ever seen again.
As school began without the much-loved Mrs. Sanders in her classroom, Leatherwood wondered how to handle the potential tragedy. She came up with yellow ribbons, hundreds of them tied to the chain-link fence that surrounds the school.
“They’re a visible sign of prayer,” Leatherwood said. “Each ribbon represents one person who’s praying for the safe return of our friends.”
Both missing women were active volunteers at St. Martin de Porres; the principal called them “just family.” The students at the school, especially the third-graders who had Mrs. Sanders last term, are curious and nervous, she said. They think they got lost, and we let that perception stand. The students need to maintain their natural fear of strangers, but we don’t want them to develop undue fears.”
Braxton Lamar, 7, and Andre Mack-Robinson, 8, admit to feeling worried. Braxton’s father reacted to his anxiety with action: “My dad got some guys to help him look around the woods and buildings and see if they could find them. They went all the way to Sumter.”
Leatherwood said that compassionate action has been a typical response from school parents.
“They ask what they can do. Some are trying to raise reward money, others visit the Sanders family and bring food and support to them. Some are handing out flyers. They’ve been wonderful,” she said.
Harrison Duckett, 7, thinks the worst. “I think Candy fell asleep and somebody grabbed them.” He said that he’s “praying to God” that he’s wrong. But he may not be: Richland County Sheriff Dept. spokesperson Lt. Joseph Pellicci said that the missing women have not withdrawn any money from their bank accounts or used their credit cards. His department was not treating the disappearance as a criminal case, as of Sept. 5, but runaways usually take as much money with them as they can gather up.
All the students at St. Martin pray for the missing Sanders girls, every morning at school. And people from the community continue to stop by and tie yellow ribbons on the school fence. Most are not Catholic, but the principal said that all prayer works and that the ribbons festooning a fence in the middle of a busy section of downtown Columbia are bright reminders of that prayer.
“We want people to keep remembering to pray. The ribbons are a symbol, that there’s hope,” Leatherwood said.
McKenzie Gearheart, 8, is a family friend. She knows the missing women, as well. She misses them, she said, and prays every night for their safe return. Her classmate, Amber Gainey, was happy when Mrs. Sanders visited the school for an hour just after Labor Day — displaying a brave face and her strong faith — but she could see that mothers worry about their children no matter if they’re little or not.
“I hold my mommy’s hand now,” Amber said.
Christine Sanders is praying that her missing daughters will be able to hold her hand soon. In the meantime, she and others in the St. Martin de Porres community see the yellow ribbons flying every day and remember to pray.