On the evening of March 8, Michelle Breisch was driving home with her 10-year-old daughter, Starleana, when the car got stuck in a snowbank in the driveway of their North Tonawanda home.
The mother got out of the car and asked her daughter to take the wheel as she tried to push the car free.
What happened next can only be described as a terrible accident: Michelle Breisch ended up under the car and died at the scene.
A month and a half later, Starleana is adjusting to a new life. She now lives with her dad and stepmother, whom she calls Mom, and their 14-month-old daughter, Jaina, in Buffalo. She has regular visits with a therapist. She’s gone back to school.
The North Tonawanda community has rallied to help her. A benefit is scheduled for Saturday in the Gratwick Hose Fire Company banquet facility to raise money for an education trust fund. It was planned by people who didn’t know Starleana or her family but heard about the tragedy accident and felt compelled to help.
Starleana wrote down some memories of her mother:
"Mom and I made a lot of good memories together.
Mom always protected me and encouraged me to be whatever I want to be. She was not perfect, but she did the best she could for me.”
Starleana doesn’t talk much about the accident. At an interview with her and her family at a Tonawanda coffee shop earlier this week, she smiled as she spoke about her mom, who was 48 and worked at the deli counter at the Walmart in Niagara Falls.
When bad things would happen, Starleana said, her mother would compare it to winter – and that spring always follows winter.
“It never made sense to me,” Starleana said.
But now, after everything she’s gone through and seeing all the love and support around her, it does.
Going back to school has gone well for Starleana, she and her family said.
Before Starleana went back, the school held an assembly to explain to the other students what had happened to Starleana and to ask them to be kind to her and not ask questions.
On her first day back, Starleana said, she was greeted by friend who assured her: “It’s not your fault.”
When she would find herself in a crowd and felt uncomfortable, a friend would suddenly appear out of nowhere and help her get to a quiet place.
“You guys are like ninjas,” she said she told them.
At gym, when the kids are picking teams, she gets picked first.
“That’s never happened before,” she said.
Although she has moved to Buffalo, she is being allowed to finish fourth grade at Drake Elementary School in North Tonawanda.
“The school has been awesome,” said April Breisch, her stepmother.
Starleana likes her sessions with counselors at school and at home, she said.
Her family encourages her to talk about her feelings but not to feel like she has to.
“What we can do is hug you and tell you it’s going to be OK,” her dad, Keith Breisch said.
Starleana loves doting on her little sister, a welcome distraction from all of the sadness.
“I try to protect her,” Starleana said as the baby fussed on her dad’s lap.
Keith Breisch recently took both girls to a Build-A-Bear store and bought them matching rainbow-colored leopard stuffed animals.
April Breisch has found ways to step up to her role as a mother to Starleana. Well before the accident, when she found out she was pregnant with Jaina, she and Keith Breisch had worried about Starleana’s reaction. They asked her if she’d like to call April “Mom,” and she agreed.
A couple of weeks ago, the two bonded over a school project. Starleana had to do a book report on Beverly Cleary’s “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” and April Breisch, who adores books and studied English and journalism in college, worked with her to finish it over spring break and turn it in early, to the teacher’s surprise.
“I read the book, too,” said April Breisch.
Starleana is excited about the benefit.
April Breisch bought Starleana a new outfit for Saturday’s benefit: a denim blouse and white capris.
It’s expected to be a big affair. More than 150 baskets have been donated and there are a number of big-ticket items, too, including a 50-inch TV and diamond earrings. There will also be people dressed up as characters and a magician. Entry is free to the event which takes place from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at Gratwick Hose Fire Company, 110 Ward Road, North Tonawanda 14120.
“What happens at a benefit?” Starleana asked. “I’ve never been to one.”
Keri Solinski, one of the main organizers of the benefit, had never met Starleana or her family before the accident.
Like many in North Tonawanda, she was heartbroken by the tragedy.
“My daughter lost her father three years ago so it kind of hits close to home,” Solinski said. “I wanted to help in one shape or form.”
The money raised is going to go into a trust fund for Starleana which will be available to her when she turns 18. She can either use the money for college or if she doesn’t go to college, it will be disbursed to her over a period of 10 years. There’s also an online fundraiser for Starleana and her family on Gofundme.com/helpstar1.
Solinski is expecting a large turnout.
“We have tons of items,” she said. “My house is full. It’s baskets on top of baskets on top of baskets. I can’t believe how big this is turning out.”