A Light in the Darkness

 

Austin & Perry_wenWhen news spread that two Tequesta teens – Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, 14-year-old friends, did not return from a fishing trip off the Jupiter inlet after a storm on July 24th – a darkness enveloped the hearts of many. Yet in the midst of this darkness, something great was stirring. Almost instantly, a community came together in faith, hope and love, shining a light – the light of Christ – for the world to see.

 

Many prayed.

Some prayed because they were part of the family. Others prayed because they were family friends. Still others, in Florida and across the Nation who wanted to help but were unable, just prayed.

“Like a lot of the community, I felt somewhat helpless except to pray and pray,” Melissa Askeland, a Stuart resident and mother of two young boys said.

Askeland recalls spending countless hours on the “Find Austin and Perry” Facebook page, hoping to spend time with others in fellowship. “I was just blown away with all of the comments about brand new and existing faith,” said Askeland. “It truly was heart-warming to see a whole community united in hope and faith.”

 

Others showed support.

On July 27th, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil to offer prayers and to show their support for the boys and their families.

Palm Beach Garden’s resident, Stephen Butler, recalls first hearing about the missing teens on his car radio. Being an avid boater and fisherman, he continued to follow the story on Facebook as soon as he arrived home.

Once Butler and his wife, Elizabeth, read about the vigil for the teens, they decided to show their support by bringing their two children with them to the gathering.

“I was not expecting to see anywhere near the number of people that showed up at the Jupiter Inlet that night,” Butler said. “(The vigil) was supposed to be at 8:00 at night; we got there at 6:45. There were 100 people when we got there.”

A teenage boy stood up on a stool and said a prayer to start the vigil.

Butler, who felt proud of the young man for having courage to speak in front of such a large crowd, said, “He lit the first (floating paper) lantern and everybody followed suit from there.”

Every age group was in attendance from three years old to 70.

“It was definitely very heartwarming to just see everybody coming together when I don’t know whether they knew the teens or not,” concluded Butler, who didn’t know the teens himself. “But it didn’t make a difference; everyone was there for the same reason.”

The vigil at Jupiter Inlet Park wasn’t the only one. More than 17 East Coast candlelight vigils took place from Boynton Beach, Florida, to Oak Island, North Carolina.

 

Funds were raised

Support continued as people quickly coordinated events to raise money to fund the search for the boys.

Krissy Webb, a close friend of the Stephanos family, wanted to help with the search but didn’t know how.

As Executive Director and Co-Founder for the past seven years of the Student Aces for Leadership program, an organization dedicated to providing leadership programs, mentoring, scholarships and internship opportunities for high school students, she was used to putting together big events and knew she could put this one together too.

“We had 36 hours, from Monday afternoon to Wednesday, to put on the event and called some of the best people in this area,” said Webb.

Webb recalled her father telling her to “bring people in that are better than you and God will direct.”

And that is just what God did.

“We had so many silent auction items that we couldn’t even keep track – over 200 items,” Webb said. “In three hours we raised over $50,000 dollars.”

Webb was proud of her Aces students, who showed their support by attending the event even though they didn’t know the boys. “And if they couldn’t be there, they asked what else they could do,” said Webb. “They were sending prayers.”

The women who helped put the event together “truly were amazing” as well, said Webb. “We developed a bond that is so strong because of the boys.”

The event was in God’s hands, stated Webb. “There was that feeling of unity that I’ve never seen before.”

 

Some became a part of the search.

The U.S. Coast Guard led an extensive week-long search in conjunction with federal and local agencies that stretched from Florida to Cape Hatteras. The family, friends and numerous supporters also continued the private search in the air, sea and land for more than two weeks before suspending the massive effort.

Jupiter resident, Jason Norcross, and his brother, Brandon, were two of the volunteers who became a part of the search as spotters in a private airplane.

Norcross, who grew up in West Palm Beach and moved to Jupiter after college, said, “The community in Jupiter – when it comes to the boating and fishing community – is different; it’s special…And when something like this happens, we are going to step in and help.”

Spending many hours in the sky was very humbling, said Norcross, who searched off the Florida/Georgia line out 120 miles and back again. “I just remember praying all day long that we would find something.”

Norcross was in awe of the amount of support provided by locals who donated their private planes and time to the search. But he could not believe how many people from far away wanted to help as well.

After reaching out to a representative with Flir Systems, the world’s leading innovator and supplier of thermal imaging technology, to ask for equipment that might aid him in the search, Norcross received a call from Flir southeast regional manager, Larry Krieg.

He told me that he had been following the story, and he wanted to help, said Norcross. And overnight, “he sent a $65,000 piece of equipment to me in the mail.”

“It just showed how gracious people are,” Norcross continued. “It makes you believe in people again and that love is stronger than anything else – that love is the most powerful thing in the world.”

 

The AustinBlu Foundation was established

Austin’s parents, Blu Stephanos and Carly Black, have started the AustinBlu Foundation to promote boating education. The foundation will also initiate legislation to require that distress radio beacons or EPIRBs (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons), which aid in the detection and location of boats, aircraft, and people in distress, become mandatory in the open ocean.

Follow the AustinBlu Foundation on Facebook as it develops to see how you can help.

 

Chrissie Ferguson is a freelance writer and the mother of three boys. She is also a middle school English teacher at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach. Read her blog at soundoflittlefeet.blogspot.com

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