On a cold Saturday morning in the middle of February, Hadley’s Park was crowded with dogs and their owners.
They came because they knew, or knew of, Rachel Smith and Rachel Crites, two former Wootton High School students and close friends who disappeared for the last two weeks of January before their bodies were discovered in rural Virginia, dead from apparent suicides.
Suzanne Collier and Allie Cossman were friends with Rachel Smith from their Jewish youth group. They figured that the best way to make sense of their friend’s tragic death was to create a lasting testament to her life.
“We wanted to do something in her honor, something that she would have loved if she could have,” said Collier. Smith had been an avid lover of dogs and animals, and had worked and volunteered at the Montgomery County Humane Society, and had helped to raise money for the organization. Collier and Cossman, juniors at Winston Churchill High School, wanted to find a way to raise money in Rachel Smith’s honor to donate to the Humane Society. They wanted to incorporate dogs and people into a single event that would honor their friend, and with the help of the rest of Congregation B’nai Tzedek’s Ahavah youth group, they came up with the idea of a charity dog walk.
“We were all really close to Rachel,” said Cossman of the group. “We wanted to help finish her work.”
So on Sunday, Feb. 18, with the area blanketed in rock-hard ice and chilled by sub-freezing temperatures, those touched by the death of the girls who had become know as “The Rachels,” turned out en masse. Music played in the background as people walked their dogs around the park.
“It wasn’t anything depressing,” said Collier of the music. “We wanted it to be a happy thing for people to remember them.”
People brought their dogs, and at the request of Cossman and Collier they brought donations as well. The girls asked for each person to give $5. Most gave more. In just over two hours the girls raised nearly $1,500.
“We were really happy with the community response,” Collier said. “People were really nice [to come] even though it was kind of yucky out. They gave a lot more [than expected] and it was really good.”
ON WEDNESDAY, March 28, Cossman and Collier brought two Tupperware containers with most of the proceeds of the February dog walk to the Montgomery County Humane Society. The rest of the money paid for an expert on teenage depression and suicide to speak to the Ahavah group.
“She was really outgoing and spunky,” Collier said of how she remembered Smith. Collier had met Rachel Crites, but didn’t know her very well.
What was important, said Collier and Cossman, was that the memories of the two girls live on.
The donated money will start the Rachel Smith Fund, said J.C. Crist, president of the Montgomery County Humane Society. Crist also announced a task force that will look into developing programs such as pairing animals in need with troubled teens.
“I realized that there is a significant parallel in this community,” said Crist. “We have many animals in need and we also have many young adults in need, as well.”
Crist said the task force will look into developing programs such as pairing animals in need with teens experiencing emotional difficulties.
“Rachel Smith was a young woman who loved animals,” said Crist. “Perhaps we can examine how we as a community can collaborate to offer programs that can assist both animals and our youth simultaneously.”
Crist commended Cossman and Collier and the work that their youth group did in Rachel Smith’s honor.
“This organization is in awe of what you’ve done,” Crist said.