DUNEDIN — Schoolmates of a 10-year-old girl who died tragically a year ago found an uplifting way to remember her this week.
They released dozens of monarch butterflies Monday at the school Kassidie Rae McMillin attended, San Jose Elementary.
Kassidie died May 14, 2011, two days after her mother shot her and then fatally shot herself in their Dunedin home.
Most of the approximately 30 children who clustered in Kassidie McMillin Memorial Garden at the school were members of the Girlfriends of Pinellas County, a club that seeks to bolster young women's self-esteem and improve their achievements in school.
The girls worked with their club leader, San Jose teacher Rebecca Hite, to create Monday's program.
Minutes before the release, one of girls, Carly Lacy, 10, said she remembers how Kassidie enjoyed life, "how she made everything seem good even when things were a little bad."
During the ceremony, Hite told the group that Kassidie's "soul and memory continues to live on."
Another Girlfriends leader, teacher Heather Bennett, worked with Kassidie last year. She shared one of Kassidie's essays about how much she enjoyed doing nice things for other people and being helpful.
"She would encourage us to keep her memory alive by thinking of the positive memories we have all shared," Bennett said.
Several members of Kassidie's family also attended the ceremony, including her father Derrick McMillin, grandmother Bonnie Fedor, great-grandmother Violet Brooks and aunt Hayley Fuseek. They said Kassidie was fascinated by butterflies and seemed to have a spiritual kinship with them.
Kassidie used to count caterpillars with her grandmother in Fedor's garden. And the weekend she died, Derrick McMillin recalls seeing lots of pictures of butterflies around the hospital and on pillows in her room. Then, the other night, two butterflies followed him on his walk home from work, he said.
"Butterflies are the symbol of rebirth and transformation," said McMillin, 37, of Seminole. "We felt it was her way of telling us she was reborn."
When the San Jose students released the butterflies from tiny paper packets, many of the insects sat still for a moment before flying away or landing in the garden.
McMillin and Fedor released them, too. One of the butterflies clung to Fedor's T-shirt for several minutes. Another rested in her hand a couple of minutes more. Then it took off.
"That's Kassidie," Fedor said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155. To submit a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.