Hundreds of candles in cups dotted the University of Virginia’s McIntire Amphitheater Thursday night – nowhere near enough to hand out to the thousands of students, administrators, faculty, staff, clergy and residents who joined together for the vigil to “Bring Hannah Home.”
Hannah Elizabeth Graham, a second-year student in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, disappeared in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, touching off a massive search effort and a tsunami of concern.
The candlelight vigil, which began at 9 p.m., was held to show support for Graham, her family and “this community we call home,” said Jalen Ross, president of the U.Va. Student Council.
In his welcome to the crowd, Abraham Axler, president of the Second-Year Council, declared, “I am here for you,” a line that each speaker echoed.
“Tonight we join together in a celebration for Hannah,” he said, noting some of her favorite things: beneath a “Bring Hannah Home” sign hung a British flag, marking her heritage, and a pair of skis, emblematic of her membership in U.Va.’s Ski Club. The cement bleachers were dotted with pink Starburst candies, another favorite of hers. “And you’ll hear some of her favorite songs, including one with an alto-saxophone, which she plays so beautifully,” he said.
Axler recounted what Graham’s friends had shared about her – her expertise in cooking, the way she decorated her bedroom wall with multi-colored paint chips in a rainbow pattern, and a Dove candy wrapper she saved for its quote: “Happiness is in the heart, not in the circumstances.”
Ross announced that a volunteer search for Graham would be held on Saturday. (Participants must meet certain criteria, and they must sign up online by Friday at 5 p.m. A briefing for all volunteers will take place Friday evening at 7 p.m. at the John Paul Jones Arena. Sign up here.)
Ross asked those gathered in the amphitheater to “look at the strength around you,” saying that even though everyone was hurting together, they could hope together.
A little later, Lital Firestone, vice president of the Second-Year Council, led the crowd in a responsive reading from a poem by Emily Dickinson: “Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul.”
A friend of Graham’s, Lani Galloway – standing at the lectern with a mutual friend, Katie, who didn’t give her last name – read a letter they had written to Graham the night before. It spoke of her joyous life, her “giraffe hugs,” her quick wit and spunky character. The three students were among a group who participated in an Alternative Spring Break trip this spring to Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan added her own words of encouragement. “All of us are struggling with two profound emotions: We are deeply worried by Hannah’s disappearance, but we are also fervently hopeful that she will return safely,” she said. “To be concerned and to be hopeful is not a contradiction. We hold these two feelings side-by-side in our hearts, and they unite us in our support for Hannah and her family.”
Students in the bleachers also voiced their support.
“I came to support this cause and my friends, who know her,” fourth-year student Jan Walker said. “When you join the University, at first you don’t know it, but you become a family,” said the Charlottesville native.
Even those who don’t know Graham said they came to show support to her family and the community. “We’re all family, and a family supports each other,” said Heather Kesler, a second-year nursing student.
Two first-year men, Joseph Epstein and Jacob Zach, said they had recruited fellow first-year students, wanting to help increase awareness of the situation. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to address this issue and show support,” Zach said.
The feeling of hope spread from the stage each time a musical combo or a capella group played or sang between speakers. They performed some of Graham’s favorite songs, including “I’ll Be,” an Edwin McCain song sung by the Hullabahoos. When they reached the refrain, “I’ll be the greatest fan of your life,” some students in the crowd joined in, amplifying their voices.
But the vigil ended “the only way we know how,” said Ross, with a round of “The Good Ol’ Song.” Everyone linked arms and swayed as they sang.
Updates on the search for Graham can be checked here.