Hit-and-run victim's family finds some measure of peace at memorial service

TAMPA — At a memorial service Wednesday, Melissa Sjostrom's adoptive mother and aunt carried her cremated remains to the garden where she was to be interred.

Neither noticed a couple standing next to a cluster of homeless people who had gathered for the memorial at Hyde Park United Methodist Church. Kim and Robert Valdez, the parents of the teen girl who nine months ago hit Sjostrom, 33, and drove away, were dressed in black.

The day before, Jordan Valdez, 17, had been sentenced to serve a term of probation until she turns 19 for leaving the scene of the crash that killed Sjostrom.

In the garden, Lisa Mott, the aunt, and Marylou Hansen, Sjostrom's adoptive mother, shared an umbrella as the remains were interred.

"She's home. She really is," said Mott. "We have Melissa somewhere she wanted to be."

Sjostrom had called her aunt regularly and told her about the church and her friends there. She had worshiped at the church on a Sunday morning in February — the final day of her life.

Hours later, as Sjostrom crossed Hyde Park Avenue, the teenager hit her.

The service brought some relief to Sjostrom's family members.

"With the events of yesterday behind us, it's time we find peace," said Bernie Lieving, congregational care pastor.

The church has long had an affinity for the marginalized and disenfranchised, Lieving said. It now serves breakfast to more than 100 homeless people on Sundays.

And decades ago, a Sunday school class offered help to a homeless man, giving him a suit that he wore to church each week, Lieving said. When he died in 1984, his were the first remains interred in the garden where Sjostrom's now rest.

Mott, who arranged for Sjostrom's cremation, sprinkled some of her remains on Cocoa Beach. She also sent a bag of ashes to Hansen, who sprinkled them on the California coast. They did this because Sjostrom loved the beach.

"She was a fireball," said Richard Allen, director of food service at the church. "She was more than just someone we fed. She used to razz me about things, the coffee, what was on the menu."

She would stop by the church, which allowed homeless people use its address, to pick up her mail.

Member Betty Tisdale came to the memorial to remember the woman whose name she once chose from a Christmas gift list. She remembers picking out some lipstick and toiletries for Sjostrom.

Sjostrom's friend, Katrina Wombles, 30 and also homeless, said they loved going to the church together. Sjostrom played a piano, sang and danced. That last morning, the two friends picked out clothes and shoes from a donation closet.

"I'll miss her forever," Wombles said.

The Valdezes stayed in the background during the short service, which was attended by about two dozen people.

"We said everything yesterday," Robert Valdez said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them. I just want today to be about Melissa."

Lieving, the pastor, told the Valdezes it was time for forgiveness and that he was praying for them.

Mott and Hansen said they had been unaware that the Valdezes attended, and would have preferred that they had not come. Mott said she would love to speak with them in private. She has unanswered questions.

Hansen said she eventually wants the Valdez family to meet Sjostrom's son, Dylan, who is 15.

"I think Jordan owes him an apology," she said.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at (813)226-3431 or eparker@sptimes.com.

Hit-and-run victim's family finds some measure of peace at memorial service 11/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 8:52am]

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