Driving past the Kappa Delta house on Greek Park, the windows are filled with light. But a year after the death of Brooke Dawkins, her sisters say the sorority is a lot less bright.
Dawkins was hit by a truck while crossing Alafaya Trail at Gemini Boulevard early in the morning on Feb. 23, 2014.
Suffering from a severe traumatic brain injury, TBI, which resulted in a complete and irreversible loss of brain function, Dawkins was declared brain dead on March 5, 2014, and was removed from life support at the age of 19.
This Thursday, the sorority will hold an event at the Kappa Delta house to reflect on the loss of Dawkins.
There will be a dinner for Dawkins' family, the sisters of Kappa Delta, other members from the Greek community, Dawkins' high school peers and members from her neighborhood community.
Following the dinner, there will be a slide show to remember Dawkins, after which everyone will gather at Lake Claire where a song will be played in memory of the Kappa Delta sister.
Eight lanterns will be released into the night sky: seven to represent the seven organs that Dawkins donated, and the eighth to represent her soul. There will also be lanterns floating in the lake to light up the night, just as Dawkins would light up a room with her charisma, said Kappa Delta sister Melia Topicz.
"For the past year, it was a lot easier to suppress and ignore the sadness and pain; but with such a landmark, it's a lot harder to run and hide," Topicz said.
Gabriella Alfano, a senior marketing major, was Dawkins' little in the sorority, and said she misses her guardian angel big every single day.
"I knew that I wanted her to be my big as soon as we met and got a chance to talk because our personalities clicked so well," said Alfano, who ran up to Dawkins with open arms at the big/little reveal.
She said it's the little things that meant the world to her, such as sending funny messages throughout the day to make each other laugh.
"She had a way with lighting up a room when she would enter it. It drew people toward her," Alfano reflected. "Simply put, she was the most beautiful, genuine, deep-voiced, hilarious food lover."
The loss of Dawkins, Alfano said, strengthened the chapter and brought all of the sisters closer together, even more than they previously were.
The Brookestrong Foundation was created in honor of Dawkins to raise money in support of organizations that research treatments of TBI or assist TBI survivors.
The sisters of Kappa Delta recently brought lunch to the ICU trauma team at the Orlando Regional Medical Center, where Dawkins stayed for 10 days after the accident. The sisters thanked the team, and the nurses expressed their appreciation for the Brookestrong team efforts.
Topicz, a junior journalism major, said she tries to be brave and strong for the other people that need it, such as Alfano.
"[Gabby] keeps me sane, and I see so much of Brooke in her that we help each other to reflect in the most positive way, thanking Brooke for the memories and laughs and being our person," Topicz said.
By releasing balloons with messages and holding each other close when needed, Topicz said the sisters still honor Dawkins, even a year later.
"Brooke is my best friend. We were roommates and partners in crime. She never left my side, and I never wanted to leave hers," she said. "She was more than my best friend; she was my therapist and confidant, sister and soul mate."
While some say "time heals everything," Topicz said it has not helped her move on. She said it seems as if it were yesterday that she and Dawkins were dancing around their apartment or driving to her parents' house for Sunday dinner.
"Day to day, you think you're getting through things and surviving and it is all baby steps, but when you look back it's like, 'How has it been an entire year? How am I still so hurt? Why can't everyone be happy?'" she said. "It really is one of those things that you will never get over and will carry with you forever."
Dawkins had a great life and impacted so many people in such a short amount of time, Topicz said, and that's what this memorial is going to reflect and honor.
Rachel Stuart is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @RachSage or email her at RachelS@CentralFloridaFuture.com.