In search of something worth giving to, Ethan Coughenour didn’t have to look far. He didn’t even have to look outside his home.
Coughenour, 7, like hundreds of Gold Hill Elementary School students, has colored paper plates and other artwork hanging around from last year’s kindergarten portfolio created in Rebecca New’s art class. Colleagues and parents remember New taking pride in showing off and sending home her students’ work.
“Her presence is definitely represented in our home,” said Tanya Coughenour, Ethan’s mom.
Just before this school year started, New died after falling from a Steele Creek dock on Lake Wylie. She was 31. Her parents and school leaders set up a scholarship for promising art students. The entire Fort Mill School District mourned her, nowhere more than at Gold Hill.
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“It was a very sad situation,” Principal Terry Brewer said Thursday, “but I think we’ve gone through a grieving process, and we’ve been strong.”
A happier day came Sept. 21. Ethan had a birthday. His party was held at Baxter YMCA, thanks to his mother’s winning big at the school’s fall carnival. They invited Ethan’s entire class. They invited others from the school and neighborhood.
They insisted no one bring presents.
All three Coughenour boys – Ethan is the middle brother – get a choice each year of presents or donations. Last year, he asked for $5 gift cards for a cancer patient and a motorcycle wreck survivor. This year, he thought of his late teacher.
“It shows a good example of service learning, but it also shows a big heart,” Brewer said.
Party planner Lauren LaFranca was touched by the gesture. She watched as children at a rain-soaked pool party brought $5 here, $10 there – all scholarship fund donations from students who knew the teacher it honors. Perhaps fittingly, several donations came in hand-drawn cards.
“Although he has just turned 7, his heart is much bigger and more mature than most people elder than he,” LaFranca said. “He was selfless, and I was touched that a 7-year-old could be content without any presents on his birthday.”
But he still scored gifts from his parents. He got an iTunes gift card, sports clothes, and a Chillow to keep his pillow cool. Mom found a deal on MattyB tickets for an upcoming Charlotte concert.
“He’s like 12,” Ethan said. “He’s a really good singer.”
But presents weren’t the point. Tanya sees lots of children in Tega Cay, her own included, who have plenty with or without lavish parties and tables full of gifts. In offering her children a choice, she’s not so much concerned with their present outlook as their future one.
“These kids are very fortunate, a lot of them,” Tanya said. “It would be great if something like this sort of kicked off a pattern.”
Money continues trickling in even after the party. The family hopes it’ll make a difference. As of Thursday, they had collected $105, which Tanya’s company will match.
In the days following New’s death, teachers and administrators echoed a common theme. Many were amazed at how profound a difference she’d made in the lives of so many students, in such a short a time.
“It’s neat to see the difference one person can make,” Brewer said. “It’s neat to see what happens when somebody cares, and he’s making his mark.”