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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: How a Buffalo 6th grader's split-second drawing put her on CBS News

Sean Kirst

The piece of art that put Ziarra Griffin on national television was drawn on a whim in the back seat of her mother's SUV. It happened a few weeks ago on a quiet Monday afternoon, just after the 11-year-old climbed off a First Student school bus stopped on Blaine Avenue in Buffalo.

Ziarra is a sixth grader at Houghton Academy, a city school. She and her brother Zayden, 8, hustled to join their mom, Tocarra Lewis, who had pulled over to pick them up behind the bus, in her SUV. The two children jumped in. They all waited for the bus to drive off, as it had countless times before.

To the shock of Lewis and her kids, the bus — as it pulled away — smacked into the front of an unoccupied red Mustang, parked along the street.

Speaking with reporter Steve Hartman, Ziarra explained what happened next on CBS Evening News Friday night. Her mother left her parked SUV, hoping to learn if the owner of the damaged car might be nearby, or if there was a neighbor to whom she could relay what she witnessed.

Andrew Sipowicz (center) is seen with some of his main supporters in crafting a tweet that went viral: To reader's left is Jared Kennedy, to far right is Conner Morro, and just behind Morro is Andrew Kneussle, whose text message first alerted Sipowicz that he had a problem with his car. (Image from Sipowicz, showing Canisius baseball team just after it won MAAC Conference championship).

Ziarra, for her part, got busy at her art. She is a kid with a passion for drawing, her mother said, a child who will settle in at the kitchen table and draw for sheer joy. She particularly loves to sketch imaginative characters who bring life to her essays or to other work assigned by teachers.

Using materials Ziarra had brought with her from school, the child – working in the SUV – prepared a note for the unknown owner of the busted-up vehicle. "This is what happened to your car," she wrote.

She offered a detailed description, in careful print letters, of how the bus struck the Mustang and pulled away, and she added her own distinctive drawing of the bus. It showed a driver with kind of  mysterious half-smile and a couple of students in the back, with stunned expressions.

Lewis - who works with adult learners at the Northland Workforce Training Center - returned to the SUV, unable to find a neighbor who could help. She realized Ziarra was preparing a note, and she worried out loud that if people saw her daughter stick a note on the dented car, they might wrongly assume Lewis caused the damage.

Ziarra reassured her. "Mom," she said, "it's the right thing to do."

Here's the CBS  segment:

 

The car, it turned out, was owned by Andrew Sipowicz, 21, a pitcher on a championship Canisius College baseball team. He is also a regular guy whose sensibilities are best described in this way: Given the choice of any meal on Earth, he just might request a Stinger from Jim's Steak-Out, a Stinger being a sub that combines steak and spicy chicken fingers.

The story took on national proportions – and came to the attention of CBS – because of the way Sipowicz responded to the child's note. He loves his car, an expression of gratitude from his parents after he put together some scholarships that saved them a bundle on tuition. Because of the note, he contacted First Student, and company officials – who said they intended to let go of the driver – promised to both pay for a rental and repair the damage.

Sipowicz was relieved and appreciative, though he said he had no wish to cause the driver any trouble. He simply wanted his car brought back to the way it used to be.

While he is not a big social media guy, a couple of his teammates — Jared Kennedy and Conner Morro — promised him if he tweeted this one out, it would go viral. They were right beyond their wildest dreams. That tweet, complete with the drawing, now has 1.2 million likes, and inspired a couple of columns in The Buffalo News.

Sean Kirst: How a Buffalo 6th grader helped solve a school bus hit-and-run

It also led to a visit from Hartman and CBS, who brought Sipowicz together for  the first time with Ziarra and her mom, during a meeting at the Koessler Athletic Center at Canisius. In the CBS story, Sipowicz offered thanks to the child for helping to solve the mystery of who damaged his car.

“I couldn’t believe you left me that note. When I first saw my car, I was angry, and then I saw your note and it changed my entire mood," he said on camera. "To know that there’s people out there with the type of integrity and honesty, it’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life."

As for Ziarra, she gave full credit to her mother.

"My mom always said when you see somebody doing the wrong thing, you have to do the right thing," she told Hartman.

Lewis and her daughter watched Friday's newscast with a bunch of friends across the Niagara River from Buffalo in Fort Erie, Ont. Lewis said Ziarra then hurried downstairs to run around in a celebratory, I-was-on-TV childhood frenzy with a bunch of her friends. As for Sipowicz, he intended to watch the news at the Buffalo home of his girlfriend, Julia Mullican.

The problem is, Mullican does not have cable. In 2018, the problem was easy to solve. They waited until CBS tweeted out the segment, and then they watched it on their phones.

More good things are coming, they all said. Sipowicz said his mother, Sharon, brought Ziarra a gift card to Journeys, her favorite store. Sipowicz and Lewis also said Canisius officials, impressed by the child's philosophy about the world, are talking about honoring her at a basketball game later this month.

Sipowicz wants to stay in touch with Ziarra and her family. He used the word "surreal" to describe the entire sequence of events, the way a hit-and-run accident that could have quickly turned into a maddening and expensive setback for a college student instead brought such wonder to his life.

Lewis, too, said people keep asking her if she can believe any of this. From the moment when a friend saw the tweet describing Ziarra's note and then sent her an astounded text, Lewis admits it has been hard to fathom all the attention that peaked Friday, when she and her daughter appeared on national TV.

She is hoping that a GoFundMe account, built on enthusiasm about the incident, will create a chance for Ziarra to receive specialized arts instruction and maybe even help with college.

As to the core issue, the way her daughter offered spontaneous help when someone else had some bad luck?

"She's always been that way," said Lewis, who on that count is not surprised at all.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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