The Shumates’ 4-year-old daughter, Gabriella, was someone they remember as a joyful and caring little girl; if she wasn’t rough-housing with her two older brothers or gently caring for and holding her baby brother, you would find her dancing and laughing.
Devin Shumate, Ella’s father, said he remembers that whenever they visited someone’s home, Ella often could be found raiding the family’s refrigerator as if it were her own. But, at 4, that was just Ella. She never knew a stranger and was always willing to help with someone’s baby.
In 2011, Ella was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver while she and her father were running errands. Her death left a painful void in the Shumates’ West Columbia household.
“When you’re out, you’re kind of subconsciously counting your kids, making sure everybody was there, and she wasn’t there,” Devin Shumate said of many a family excursion after her death.
Shumate and his wife, Dacia, found comfort in their faith, which allowed them to remain productive and to continue providing a life for their three other children. They set up the Gabriella Shumate Memorial Foundation, which aims to bring children the same joy that Ella often brought to them. This Saturday, the fourth annual “Run Ella Run!” memorial 5K will be held at the South Congaree Arena to raise money to help buy living essentials and presents for children in need.
“We have a two-fold mission. The first is to bring happiness to children, and the second is to promote driving safety,” Dacia Shumate, who heads up the foundation’s operations, said. “The main part part of our foundation is to bring happiness to children. The foundation is based on (Ella’s) personality in wanting to help other people and bringing joy to others.”
The foundation has raised $30,000 in the past three years for charity work done by local schools, organizations and law enforcement agencies. In the winter, the foundation also puts on a stocking stuffing drive for children in need. Recently, the foundation helped River Bluff High School, where Devin Shumate works as a social studies teacher, to provide toys for 102 children the school “adopted.”
“We will see her again,” Devin Shumate said. “She is in the arms of our heavenly father, and when we see her again, it will be like we never left. Until then, we need to do something with her memory. And this is what we choose to do.”
On May 16, 2011, the Shumates were entertaining friends at their West Columbia home, just off Ramblin Road. Ella joined her father as he dropped the friends off at the end of the night.
They were returning home at the same time as 21-year-old Caitlin Braun of New Jersey, who had just days before graduated from the University of South Carolina.
Braun was returning from an event at the Indian River Golf Club, just a few minutes away from the Shumate home. Braun had been drinking throughout the event. A police report would reveal that she had a blood-alcohol level of 0.296.
Devin Shumate remembers seeing Braun’s car cross the center line and head straight for them, traveling 60 mph in a 35 mph zone. Braun collided head-on with Shumate’s car, crushing the steering wheel against Shumate’s chest and breaking several bones in an arm, his legs and feet. Ella died at the scene.
Braun was charged with two counts of felony DUI and served 18 months in jail. But Shumate said he felt no malice toward her. Instead, he felt sympathy and forgiveness.
“I think part of it was that we felt it was an obligation to let her know that we forgave her,” Shumate said. “If she felt that we harbored bad feelings towards her, it would be harder for her to forgive herself and move along.”
Shumate said he often visited Braun throughout her time in jail, trading stories of their lives and the crash and talking about Ella. “It was very therapeutic for me to go to the prison and talk to her. For me to tell her my side of the story, and for her to tell me her side of the story, it helped for me to come full circle,” Shumate said. “She is a really good person that made a series of bad choices.”
Braun lives in New Jersey again now, with her mother, and started a new job this week, she told The State but declined to say more. She stays in touch with the Shumates.
Although the pain of losing Ella will never disappear, in 2012, the Shumates had another child, a daughter named Elliana. She has the same blond hair and blue eyes her older sister had and, according to the Shumates, dances just the same.
“We often said that God knew what we wanted,” Dacia Shumate said. “We felt like Ella had a little say in that. That she was in heaven and teaching her little sister everything that she needed to know about our family and what she needed to do to rule the roost.”
Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.
IF YOU GO
For those interested in participating, or donating, to the Gabriella Shumate Memorial Foundation’s “Run Ella Run!” memorial 5K, here is some information to get you involved:
▪ Where: South Congaree Arena, 395 Oak St., South Congaree, in Lexington County
▪ When: Saturday. The 5K run and walk start at 8 a.m. The kids’ fun run starts at 9:15 a.m.
▪ Cost: $25 online registration fee through Friday, June 5; $30 registration fee packet pick-up the day of the race, www.runellarun.com/race-day/. Children 11 and younger can participate for free but must be registered and have a parent’s waiver.