Amid the commotion of the cramped classroom, 9-year-old Kelly Nichols quietly penciled a message to her friend Kristin Kirtley. In the unsteady cursive handwriting of a little girl, she wrote:
I wish that you did not die. I liked the way you helped me out on work and than I have said go By.
Kelly and some of her classmates at the Cedarview Learning Center in New Port Richey gathered Wednesday afternoon to write notes and draw pictures for classmates Kristin, 7, and her 4-year-old brother, Robert "Bobby" Wilder Jr., who were killed in an auto accident early Tuesday morning.
"I miss (Kristin) a whole lot," Kelly said.
As two dozen children scribbled in crayon, Robert and Stephanie Wilder walked in with their 2-year-old son, Justin. Tears flowed from Stephanie Wilder's eyes while she watched the children work. Only days before, all three of her children had attended the summer program at Cedarview.
"Are you the mother?" asked 6-year-old Lucciana Haskas.
"They're an angel now," the little girl said. "They'll always be around us."
Kristin and Bobby died early Tuesday morning after a car driven by their 19-year-old uncle, Adam Wilder, crashed into a median wall on Interstate 75 just south of Atlanta. The children had been headed from their home in New Port Richey to their grandmother's house in Chicago.
On Wednesday, Robert Wilder Sr. said his brother was in critical but stable condition at Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale, Ga. He was scheduled Wednesday for surgery on his pelvic area. Doctors said there's a 75 percent chance that Adam Wilder will walk again, his brother said.
Despite earlier speculation, Robert Wilder Sr. said his brother had not fallen asleep at the wheel. Instead, he said, Adam Wilder was run off the road when a truck cut in front of his path. When informed of his niece's and nephew's deaths, Adam Wilder was devastated, Robert Wilder said.
"He took it pretty rough," he said.
At the learning center Wednesday, the children's parents and friends struggled to deal with their loss. When one of Kristin's best friends, 7-year-old Amber Beachler, saw Stephanie Wilder crying, Beachler approached her with a card decorated in heart balloons. On the front, she had written, "I will be with you" in pink letters. Inside was a crayon picture of the two girls holding hands.
"It's about me and Kristin together," she said.
"Thank you," Wilder said, hugging her. "I'll keep it all forever."
After a dozen of the children hugged Wilder and gave her cards, the group moved outside to the playground. There, staff members put a handful of the drawings into a plastic bag, which they tied to a colorful bunch of helium balloons donated by Publix.
Stephanie Wilder's voice shook when she released the bundle.
"Bobby and Kristin, we love you guys," she sobbed, looking toward the sky.
Though few children had cried up to that point, several broke down as they watched their letters travel toward the heavens. Some turned to find a staff member to hug, others just gripped one another.
The tears were shed for two children who, while alive, had brightened the places they went, said teacher Dennis Brown, 20.
"They always brought a smile to everyone's faces," he said.
_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6232 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.