CHAMPAIGN — Renee and Bryan Cloyd were pretty sure their late daughter would have cringed at the notion of a day named for her. Not the purpose of the day, just the hoopla attached to her by virtue of being a victim.
Five years ago Monday, Austin Cloyd, 19, was among 32 people killed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., by a mentally ill gunman who later killed himself. Another 25 were injured.
On Saturday, scores of people from her hometown came together in her name to do good things for others — a cause her parents knew she would endorse.
The Cloyd family moved from Champaign in 2005 when Bryan Cloyd left his teaching position at the University of Illinois to accept another at Virginia Tech. Miss Cloyd was a freshman in international studies in 2007 when her life came to an abrupt end. She would have turned 24 on April 24.
"Austin would be rolling her eyes with all the attention but very excited with the way you've embraced serving your community. She would be so tickled to see you all here," Renee Cloyd told students gathered at Centennial High School Saturday morning.
Despite a steady rain, they reported for duty for the fifth annual day of community service named after Austin Cloyd, who was active in community service as well as sports at Centennial. In 2007, not long after the fatal shootings, a small group gathered informally to do service projects to honor her. In 2008, the event expanded and took on its name: Austin's Day. Hence, the fifth annual day of community service, not the sixth.
About 220 volunteers in Champaign branched out from the high school to do such tasks as sort clothes for the Center for Women in Transition, spiff up the garden courtyard at Centennial and at the Humane Society in Urbana, move furniture at Habitat for Humanity's ReStore, distribute food from the Eastern Illinois Food Bank to people in Hammond, paint at Canterbury Ridge retirement center in Urbana and visit with residents there.
"Never underestimate the power of the passion of a few to change the world," Bryan Cloyd said in his pep talk to the workers before they headed out.
It had been four years since Bryan Cloyd had been back to Champaign from Virginia. Renee Cloyd was participating in her third Austin's Day. They drove 12 hours Friday to get here and stayed with former neighbors. Both were enjoying seeing Champaign friends who showed up to help.
The work day was the brainchild of Jordan Branham, 21, of Champaign, now a student at Washington University in St. Louis. Although he did not know Miss Cloyd personally, his two older brothers went with her on an Appalachian service project while they were in high school.
Branham said at the end of his junior year, as he was about to interview for membership in Interact, a Rotary-sponsored service program for teens, he came up with the idea of honoring Miss Cloyd's commitment to helping change the world, a little bit at a time.
"Austin was all about service. She loved giving back to the community. We wanted to put on an event that would embody that spirit," said Branham, participating in his third Austin's Day.
From an initial 75 volunteers, the event has quadrupled in size. Besides the workers in Champaign, there were also another 75 or so doing projects in Carbondale. A friend of Bryan Cloyd's carried the idea to the Southern Illinois University campus, according to Todd Salen, of Champaign Rotary.
Salen said a pleasant consequence of Austin's Day is that other organizations have been moved to carry out their own service projects apart from the ones organized by Rotary and the Centennial students.
Experience has shown the organizers they need to have more indoor projects for the April event.
"This is the third year we've had rain. We're good for the farmers," Salen laughed.
Hannah Cuttell, 18, a Centennial senior, was among those enduring a soaking to make her school look better.
"I'm fine," she said, water dripping off her nose as she picked up leaves and branches in Centennial's courtyard garden in a light steady rain. "It's satisfying."
Fellow Interact members and seniors Carli Ward, 17, and Joan Chuzu, 16, were inside handing out tools for the volunteers to use.
Both are so busy with other activities like cheerleading, basketball and dance team during the rest of the school year that they were glad to have one day, albeit a long one, to be able to give back to the community.
The Cloyds said it may sound strange but in the wake of Austin's death, they have derived great joy in their grief.
Because of the very public manner in which their daughter died, so many people have reached out to them, Renee Cloyd said. Not everyone who loses a loved one so violently gets that kind of support, she said.
And both she and her husband are thrilled at the work being done by the Centennial students and others in their child's name.
"We have seen the better side of humanity," said Bryan Cloyd. "We really have found it's the goal in life not to be happy. It's to make a difference in the world. There's a lot of joy in giving back."