Family, friends celebrate
Ashley Willwerth's
life and remember her
through special foundation

By Anne Heymen | Correspondent | Posted: May 20, 2005

Ashley Willwerth was excited about her 19th birthday. As a matter of fact, she was already planning the details last fall in anticipation of the April 2005 event.

Then tragedy struck.

Ashley, a 2004 graduate of St. Augustine High School, lost her life early one morning in October 2004 as she tried to cross U.S. 1 at Gun Club Road. She was on her way to classes at St. Johns River Community College.

The accident occurred Oct. 8, 2004, and after struggling with the loss of their loved one, the Willwerth family decided to press on with plans for Ashley's party.

They also established a foundation for the young lady whom her brother, Jason, describes as, "you always would know she was there. The minute she was there, she would light up a room." She was a tease, he said, but she also always had something nice to say.

"You can't let depression take over, because it will," adds Charlie Willwerth, Ashley's father.

And that's why the Willwerth family decided to have the birthday party. She'd planned everything, says her father. "All I did was implement it."

About 70 friends -- classmates, fellow musicians, church members from the First Baptist Church of Jacksonville -- and family members gathered at the Willwerths' Capo Island Road home April 23 to pay tribute to Ashley. Her birthday was April 26. She was born in Fayetteville, N.C., to Charlie, an air traffic controller, and his wife, Susan, now deceased.

Today, the Willwerth family includes Charlie's wife, Laurie, and, in addition to son, Jason, a Navy recruiter living in the Orlando area, two sisters, Christina Elders and Amie Martin, both of whom live out of state.

Her grandparents are Charlie and Sally Willwerth of St. Augustine; and Jacksonville residents Harold and Helen Ryer and Mary Helen and Howard Marshal.

It was both a "bittersweet and happy occasion," Willwerth admits. Guests wrote messages in a guest book, enjoyed an afternoon of good food and fellowship and visited Ashley's room, where they were invited to take a memento. "We've still got all her stuff," Willwerth said, adding that "we had a great time," but when we first went through the bedroom, that was "a time for tears."

Through the grieving process, however, the family has been able to make positive strides.

A talented musician and a scholar, those aspects of her life have been remembered through the Ashley Willwerth Foundation, a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization.

The foundation, explains Willwerth, pays tribute to Ashley's dedication to the violin. She played in the St. Augustine High School Orchestra, with the orchestra at the First Baptist Church, the St. Augustine Community Orchestra and the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra.

It was her stepmother, Laurie, a music teacher who specializes in strings, who introduced Ashley to the violin.

"She never missed anything. She was a dedicated top-notch student," Al Dodds, orchestra and band director at SAHS, is quoted on the Ashley's Web site.

During the last two years she played with the high school orchestra, she won the prestigious National School Orchestra Award.

Because of her love of the violin the theme for the foundation was established. It is dedicated to providing financial assistance to students of string instruments, and their teachers, to help with the purchase of published music, supplies and with tuition. Contributions have come in from many areas. Welcomed are not only monetary contributions, says Willwerth, but bows, cases, instruments, metronomes, music and music stands and much more.

Her father has worked long and hard to establish the not-for-profit foundation, says one family friend. "In six months, he has been able to build the foundation to send students of music, like Ashley, to educational events like workshops and clinics they would not be able to attend otherwise."

Chance meeting

It was through her church, First Baptist, that Ashley made a decision as to what her life's work would be.

For years, says her father, Ashley wanted to be a meteorologist, specializing in tornadoes.

Then, as a member of the orchestra at the First Baptist, she met former State Rep. Doug Wiles of St. Augustine. She decided, says her father, that she wanted to work for Wiles. "She admired him."

"She was a very bright, very intelligent young lady," Wiles recalls of Ashley.

"She seemed to be passionate about life I had a great conversation with her. We talked about politics, what life was like."

"What a remarkable thing to do to keep her memory alive by creating a foundation to help others."

Her dedication to her church was remembered by the congregation, and this past February a banner in her memory was unveiled. It will be used at the church on special occasions.

Messages to Ashley, penned by friends and relatives who attended the April 23 celebration, ranged from "I love you girl and really miss you" to "Be forever blessed in heaven sweet girl."

And the message from one: "Happy 19th birthday. See you later."

"I'm still dealing with it every day," Willwerth says of the loss of Ashley. "For a long, long time, I expected her to walk through the door."

His advice to others suffering the loss of a loved one: "You just gotta tell them you love them every time they walk out the door.

"She was a good girl."

To lend your support to the Ashley Willwerth Foundation, log on to . The site also includes details on Ashley's life, a photo gallery and how individuals can not only support the organization, but can also apply for a scholarship.