She was tall, at least 5 feet 9 or more, and all of it was smile. Her name tag said, “Keundra,” but it was her smile at Food Lion that made Keundra Smith unforgettable.
“She was just a wonderful person – beautiful inside and out,” said Ashley Collier, an employee at the store at the busy intersection of U.S. 21 and Regent Parkway just south of the North Carolina state line. “We started here together. She was my friend. But she was more. She was just so nice.”
Then Collier cried, because this friend of hers who never complained, always smiled, is gone.
Smith, 18, died Sunday morning in a car crash in Greenville County, S.C. She was the passenger in a vehicle driven by her cousin that went off the road, and all those dreams of college and success and a life that promised to be great were over.
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Smith’s nickname was Keke, and she was a student at Harding High School in Charlotte. She played volleyball and loved sports and was an officer of her senior class set to graduate in six months. But this young person hustled, and so she worked. She would be there early at the Food Lion, never late and never complaining.
“She was an exceptional employee, a role model for others,” store manager Yee Vang said. “Always smiling.”
In the store Monday, as word spread, customers were saddened because grocery stores near neighborhoods are familiar. Employees held one another up for comfort. There were hugs and tears and sadness. The store built a box with her name and picture on it so that donations could be collected and delivered to the family with Food Lion food trays and more.
“She was family,” Vang said.
Nobody told these Food Lion employees to do it. They did it because one of their family is gone.
People go in and out several times a week at any grocery store. They know the dour faces and the smiling faces. Keundra Smith was one of the faces who working that lit up the store. Young, tall, smiling, and friendly. A thousand other people and I drag in after work, to get the milk and the bread and whatever else is needed, and there she was.
“Hello!” Keundra Smith would call out.
Shyrice Robinson, just a couple years older than Smith, spoke of her co-worker and friend as the kind of person who made everyone’s day better.
“She was always smiling – always,” Robinson said. “She came in here with a joyful heart, and she made everyone around her so happy.”
A grocery store features employees of all types. Management professionals, young people, retirees and part-timers making extra money. There are so many faces in the crowd – from the fruit and vegetables to the butchers to the guys stocking shelves and always the people in front dealing with customers. It is a hard way to make a living, and the customers are always in a rush.
At the front of every grocery store – in the world and this Food Lion in Fort Mill is no exception – is a desk that says “customer service.” Keundra Smith lived those words way beyond her young age.
“She made people feel better every day,” Robinson said.
Not every 18-year-old high school kid trying to juggle school and work and wanting to get to college smiles like Keundra Smith did.
I saw it myself, uncountable days as she worked the register and the greeting and the self-checkout. I live near this Food Lion, and stop often.
For the past two, three months, Keundra Smith’s smile was part of this store for me and hundreds, maybe thousands of other people, who didn’t know her except the name tag and the smile.
At least five times, I talked to her in the line and she laughed as I rushed back to get something I forgot.
She used to work at the Wendy’s fast food restaurant near the entrance to Carowinds up the road. She remembered my three daughters in the place all the time. She would always ask about my two older daughters at college as she rang up the groceries at Food Lion. She would tell my youngest daughter how pretty she was and how she liked her hair.
Words as good as Gold for a 13-year-old.
I asked Keundra not more than two weeks ago if she was excited for college and she was thrilled to say that she was.
And then went I walked in to that store Monday, and it was not to get milk or beer or cereal. It was to stand there and see the co-workers and customers crying over the loss of a person who made all of our lives better for a short time, and now was gone.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065