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Tragedy brings community together to support grieving family

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The Evans children, from left, Jimmy, Zoe, and Ashton, pose with their mother, Ao, holding a photo of her deceased husband Richard, after their baptism at St. James of the Valley Church in February.  (Courtesy Photo)
The Evans children, from left, Jimmy, Zoe, and Ashton, pose with their mother, Ao, holding a photo of her deceased husband Richard, after their baptism at St. James of the Valley Church in February. (Courtesy Photo)

By Eileen Connelly, OSU
The Catholic Telegraph

It’s been nearly a year since a senseless tragedy claimed the life of a devoted husband, father and well respected local business owner, but in that time a community and parish have united to support his family with compassion and faith. 

Richard Evans, owner of Cosmic Pizza in Hartwell, was shot to death during a robbery attempt at his restaurant last June 15, while his wife, Ao, and three young children, Jimmy, Zoe and Ashton were close by. Neighbors immediately rallied to their assistance, organizing fundraisers to help with funeral expenses and seeing to the family’s needs.

Lisa McDonald, a member of St. James of the Valley Parish in Wyoming, parent and “cafeteria mom,” who lives nearby, recalls visiting the Evans’ home the day after the tragedy to offer her support.

“I’ll never forget the moment I met Ao and her children,” she said. “I knew that a group of concerned neighbors had already gathered, so I was worried that my presence would overwhelm her. However, I wanted to offer my help if she needed it.”

McDonald wasn’t prepared for what she was about to learn. Evans had met Ao, a native of Thailand, while traveling there in 2000. They married and lived in California for a time before settling in Cincinnati.  Evans took care of all of his family’s needs, and Ao, who spoke limited English, had little contact with others beyond her husband and children.

“He was very private,,” Ao said of her husband. “He would go to work, then come home to be with us. He just wanted to be with his family all of the time and do everything for us.”

“With Rich now gone, Ao and her children were completely alone with no idea how they were even going to survive for even one day,” McDonald said. “Within a matter of minutes, the desperation was evident and without hesitation, my neighbors and I stepped into action. I sensed immediately the strength of the woman I was standing with and I said the first of many prayers to myself: ‘Please, God, give me the strength to help this woman in every way possible.’”

And, help she did, along with many others. Neighbors and community members helped Ao set up bank accounts, arranged appointments and transportation for her and the children, and assisted her with beginning the process of applying for a work permit and permanent residency. “It was neat to see how with every need that needed to be filled, it just happened,” said McDonald.

Assisting the grieving family wasn’t without its challenges, though.

“Ao had never been around anyone other than Rich or her children and now, all of the sudden, she had no choice but to accept our help,” explained McDonald. “She was so vulnerable, and the trauma, as well as the extreme anxiety she was feeling, was obvious. It absolutely broke my heart, so I prayed yet again: ‘Please, God, give us the ability to gain Ao’s trust.’

The hope, she said, was that if Ao was able to trust those trying to help her it would ease some of her despair. Slowly, over time, “I could see her faith growing in us,” McDonald said. “Fast forward to the present, and you’ll see a beautiful friendship consisting of dedicated neighbors, as well others not from the neighborhood.”

An obvious priority was the need to enroll the children, who had previously been home schooled by their father, in class. McDonald approached Jim Haag, principal of St. James of the Valley School, about the possibility bringing the family in for a visit and tour. For Haag, there was no question that having Jimmy and Zoe attend St. James was the solution. Arrangements were made to cover the children’s tuition, a tutoring program was put in place for Jimmy to get him up to speed with his fellow third graders, and Zoe was registered for kindergarten.

“It just seemed the right thing for us to do,” Haag said. “This is what our faith is all about. Anybody who meets the family just loves them. Jimmy and Zoe have been welcomed by the entire school. Everyone looks out for them and they are thriving here.”

Jimmy has been under the expert tutelage of retired teacher Darlene Heidel, who has nothing but praise for the determined and enthusiastic little boy. “He’s very independent and can do all the work, and he loves school! He didn’t like all the snow days we had over the winter. It’s been wonderful to see him gain confidence and become more comfortable.”

As a Catholic himself, it was important to Evans that his children be raised in the church. Ao said she and her husband had always planned to have the children baptized, but wanted all three to receive the sacrament at the same time. On Feb. 27, during St. James’ regular school Mass and with many members of the local community present, the Evans children were baptized. During the liturgy, Father Jack Wehman, pastor, asked those who had come to the family’s aid to stand. “You are an example of Christianity for all of us,” he told them.

“This would make my husband very happy,” Ao said.

Little Jimmy, who reportedly wants to be just like his dad, is embracing Catholicism wholeheartedly. He was proud to make his first Communion on May 4 and often requests to attend Mass on both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. “I like to sing and hear stories about God,” he said.

The family is still grieving and recovering from their traumatic experience. Ao said the children, who are undergoing counseling, are afraid to be alone and often have nightmares. But, they are also moving forward, strengthened by the continued support and prayers of new found friends and the community that has embraced them.

“Our ultimate goal is to help Ao gain total independence and provide for her family,” McDonald said. “I have no doubt that together we will accomplish this goal. Ao is amazing woman, who is stronger that she knows, and I’m honored to be in her life.”

 This article originally appeared in the June 2014 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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