- Associated Press - Friday, August 19, 2016

NORTHPORT, Ala. (AP) - Today, Danette Williams and her family are in a good place.

However, if someone had asked her how she was back in November 2007, Williams would have given a very different answer.

“If you had told me nine years ago that I would survive, I would have said you’re crazy,” Williams said.

On Nov. 11, 2007, her 20-year-old daughter, Holly Rogers, was killed by a drunken driver who hit her head-on while driving the wrong way on McFarland Boulevard. The driver, Emilio Mendez Hernandez, later pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. At the time of the wreck, Hernandez was living in the country illegally.

Williams said that she and her husband, Steve, have gotten through the pain of losing Holly by working to keep her memory alive in the community.

“One thing that we shared with our support group is that the one thing that keeps you going is to make sure your child’s memory stays alive,” she said. “You can’t bring your child back, but you want to make sure they are never forgotten.”

Now, members of the Northport community are making sure Rogers’ memory is not forgotten through the Holly Rogers Project, which sets out to put “Little Free Library” boxes across town to encourage literacy.

On Wednesday, people gathered at Williams’ home to unveil the first “Little Free Library,” a small box raised a couple of feet in the air full of books for the community. The theme of “Little Free Library,” which has nearly 40,000 boxes across the country, is to encourage reading in small communities, allowing children to take books from each box and read, later returning them or adding to the collection.

The first box has been called a “Holly Box” with the intention to put more up throughout Northport as a way to both advocate for literacy and to remember Rogers.

“It’s just a community thing, something for kids,” said Debbie Stalfort, a family friend and advocate for the program. “Alabama’s schools have such a lack of money and there’s a problem with reading, so we want to make all these books available.”

Joe Pearson, a family friend of Williams, has built his own “Holly Box” that will be installed later on.

“I’ve seen what the family has been through and maybe all this will keep her memory alive,” Pearson said.

Williams said the project was first suggested by Donna Aaron, a former Tuscaloosa County High School teacher and Northport mayoral candidate, and that it is in line with Holly’s passions. As a child, Holly would read books such as “Goodnight Moon” and the Dr. Seuss collection. In fact, when Holly was a student at Faucett-Vestavia Elementary, she was a library assistant.

Williams said Holly was interested in becoming a teacher to deaf children and carried a strong love of literature until she died.

“I think it will mean a lot to them and hopefully it will increase their desire to read,” Williams said. “She would love knowing she had a part in this.”

Stalfort’s daughter, Jenny Burroughs, said Holly was a wonderful person and that the “Holly Box,” along with those that follow, would bring awareness not only to literacy, but to the drunken driving that killed her.

“What could be better than coming together as a community and encouraging young children to expand their minds,” Burroughs said.

As children began to fill the box with books, Williams said she was glad to know that Holly’s legacy will live on.

“It makes it more bearable to know that people still love her and think about her,” she said.


Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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