In the nighttime hours after Silverton High School graduate Elizabeth Hoke died in a car crash last September, her parents, Anthony and Kristan, felt a grief so heavy they wondered how they could survive until sunrise – and then live the next day, too.
“It felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room, and I couldn’t breathe,” said Anthony. “When a child dies, you’re not wired for it as a human being.”
In those same dark hours, a thought coalesced in his mind. He should start a fund to help other kids accomplish good things in the world like his daughter would have. To carry on her spirit. To thank the community that made her who she was.
“We had to find a way to carry on this amazing soul,” he said.
Now, less than three months after Elizabeth’s death, the Hokes and their close friends have created the Elizabeth Ashley Hoke Memorial Trust, a nonprofit that is funding 10 scholarships for local students, has purchased books for area schools and has hosted a free Thanksgiving meal.
On Thanksgiving Day, more than 200 people, many regular attendees of Silverton’s free weekly community dinners, came to Immanuel Lutheran Church to eat a feast conceptualized and cooked by the Hokes and assisted by their friends and family.
“I’ve not seen a family who, amidst such a sudden and devastating loss, has been able to turn it into loving and caring and serving so quickly and so profoundly,” said the church’s pastor, Leah Stolte-Doerfler.
She would’ve loved attending, said her dad. After all, together they’d made a pact to “give back” just weeks before her death.
A beautiful soul
Anthony and Kristan’s oldest child, Elizabeth, was born Sept. 12, 1999.
Kristan said she remembers those early days, working at their farm’s new retail store while Elizabeth, just a baby, twirled and jumped in a bouncy seat nearby.
From the time she was tiny, their daughter could listen to a song on the radio once and easily recall it. One time, when Elizabeth was 3, Kristan thought she recognized what her daughter was singing in the back seat.
“It remember thinking, ‘Is she singing Kenny Chesney?’" she said. “I turned up the radio, and sure enough, she was!”
Elizabeth was joined by a sister, Abbie, now a 16-year-old junior at Silverton High.
The Hoke girls attended Victor Point School and, from her earliest years, Elizabeth “didn’t have a clique,” said her dad. “She would talk to anyone.”
She loved to read, dance, sing and draw. In high school, she discovered a love for science, especially genetics and the human body. She worked with plants on the farm, showed sheep for FFA, studied Spanish and graduated valedictorian from Silverton High School last June.
“She was shy, sweet and wickedly smart,” said Silverton High science teacher Alison Stolfus. “She grew from a shy young girl to a vibrant and confident young woman.”
A place in this world
Elizabeth’s first big trip with her dad came when she was only 6. He brought her along to New York City, where she tolerated the red-eye flight and whirlwind sight-seeing beautifully, he recalled.
That was the beginning of many adventures Along with the more common destination of Disneyland, Elizabeth also visited Spain, Italy and Mexico.
In 2014, he and Elizabeth – travel enthusiasts – began planning a high school graduation trip. They finally settled on Southeast Asia, because they were seeking a grand adventure, and neither spoke the languages there.
In Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, they sought to disconnect from the stresses of daily life. For a month, they started each morning by locking their cell phones in their hotel room to avoid spending precious moments messaging or using social media.
“Be here now,” was their motto.
Neither Anthony nor Kristan had used Facebook before this fall. They didn’t need to live in the public eye, nor did they want to. Thus, much of the community was surprised by the breadth of their adventures at Elizabeth’s celebration of life service at the Oregon Garden on Sept. 29.
The lessons father and daughter learned in Southeast Asia might’ve remained private too, if it weren’t for the tragedy that broke the Hokes’ life open to their community.
Promising each other to “live gratefully” and “give back more,” Anthony and Elizabeth flew home to Oregon at summer’s end. The 17-year-old was signed up to attend Western Oregon University and study biology. She wanted to help kids with medical problems and was excited to live in Monmouth.
“But she loved Silverton, and she was already talking about how she was going to come back and work here when she graduated,” Anthony said.
On Sept. 12, she turned 18 and got ready for classes to begin. Her new college town was her destination when she left her parents’ company in her Volvo on the evening of Friday, Sept. 22.
At 7:50 p.m., Polk County deputies responded to a collision between Elizabeth’s Volvo and an Acura driven by a 24-year-old Dallas resident, north of Monmouth. Police later determined that the other driver had been speeding. Both drivers died instantly.
Words will never describe the shock the Hokes felt. They rushed to the crash scene, where the night was dark but lit by scores of emergency vehicle lights. It was surreal. How could their sweet, vibrant girl – just 10 days past her 18th birthday – be gone?
Suddenly a father, mother and sister found themselves thrust into mourning, wondering how to take their next breaths.
“We’ve been together for a long time, but we knew right away that this was something beyond our resources,” Anthony said. “It was very clear that life had forever changed.”
A new calling
By 8 a.m. the morning after the crash, friends were at the Hokes’ house, surrounding them with the best consolation they could offer – tears, hugs, meals, and, simply, company.
One of them was Carson Lord, Anthony’s friend and fishing partner for the last 14 years. Both nursery owners, the men had even traveled together. Anthony quickly shared his vision of creating a trust to honor Elizabeth and give back to the community she loved so much.
People wanted to donate. If Anthony and Kristan hadn’t known the lengths to which their community would go for them before, they did now.
They appointed three trustees: Lord, Eric Jamieson and Patrick Lailey, and four advisers to oversee the new nonprofit. Instead of serving on the board themselves, they stepped back, opting to focus on fundraising, grieving and raising their daughter, Abbie.
Crafted to match Eilzabeth’s talents and interests, the trust’s 10 scholarships will be awarded to students with aptitudes or interests in music, dance, science, the arts, foreign language, and sports, participation in FFA, accomplishment as a valedictorian, and having “gratitude for life” or special needs. Purposely, the Hokes haven’t attached the scholarships to students’ college plans or skills, but rather their “good choices” or “passion for life,” Anthony said.
The Salem Foundation is administering the scholarships for the trust; donations can be made online at https://ehoketrust.org.
The trust will also make direct community grants, such those that funded the Thanksgiving meal and bought books for Silverton Middle School and Victor Point. Donations toward these efforts can be made at Citizens Bank in Silverton.
“Elizabeth was an incredible kid, happy, bright and generous; we won’t forget that, and eventually I hope we also remember her as the spark that lit a thousand acts of kindness,” Lord said.
Now the Hokes plan to focus on loving each other, grieving however they need to, and looking for what brings real joy.
“Things are different now,” Kristan said. “A lot of things don’t matter anymore.”
For them, this tragedy has burned away the joy in just about everything. Everything, that is, except the joy in giving to others, especially those who’ve undergone pain themselves.
“There is no wrong way to grieve – other than not to grieve at all,” Stolte-Doerfler said. “It is inspiring to watch the Hokes transform their situation into a blessing to the community.”