Donations pour in for Dorset native killed in Las Vegas shooting

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DORSET — For Carissa Dester of Redondo Beach, Calif., Sandy Casey was more than a best friend. She was a role model whose career in teaching Dester wanted to emulate, and a person with a natural sense of humor who was "a breath of fresh air" in any room she entered.

"She was the exact friend you would ever want in your life," Dester said.

When Casey died during the mass shooting at a country music festival on Sunday in Las Vegas, Dester knew she had to do something for her best friend and her family back in Vermont. She started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing effort to raise money to return Casey back to East Dorset — a place Dester said Casey spoke of often and glowingly — for funeral services.

"I knew I had to do this for her. She was that friend that would go above and beyond for anyone, and I knew in a heartbeat she would have done that," Dester told the Journal on Wednesday. "I wanted to do whatever I could in my power to support this."

That fund, which started Tuesday with a modest goal of $10,000, soared past its initial goal within 12 hours. As of press time Wednesday, the fund had raised more than $53,000, and funds over and above the cost of transportation and burial will now become scholarship funds for Casey's nieces and nephews.

"The amount of love and support is really incredible," said Dester. "I didn't expect this to become what it is."

What's more, Dester said Casey's family has been touched by this visible outpouring of support.

"I sent the [GoFundMe] link to her mom," Dester said. "She was just besides herself — she thanked me and everyone who donated."

In the days after Casey died, her story has been shared around the world. In Tuesday and online editions of The Washington Post, on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and across social media, readers and listeners were learning that Casey had grown up in Vermont, pursued a career in special education and was loved and appreciated by her teachers, her friends, and her students and their families in Manhattan Beach, California.

In The Washington Post, Casey's story was told by her fiance, Christopher Willemse. The couple had bonded over country music and had been together for three years. He proposed to her in April during a trip to New Zealand.

"She was just a kind soul and she was full of life and loved to live it," Willemse told the Post. "She made everybody smile, she was an excellent teacher and loved the kids she taught. Everyone who meets her never forgets her."

Casey was killed when a gunman on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas opened fire on a crowd of thousands of country music fans gathered below for the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival.

The daughter of Steven and Theresa Casey of East Dorset, Sandy Casey, 35, graduated with the Class of 2000 at Burr and Burton Academy. A graduate of the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, she earned a masters in special education from Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., in 2005.

Dester, who is 28, said she met Casey three and a half years ago and knew right away she had found a special friend. Both got engaged this past spring.

"She's gone above and beyond for me for this special time in life more than herself. She was so giving and loving and kind," Dester said. "I know moving forward I will never find a person like her ever again. I looked up to her a lot."

Dester was so touched by Casey's example as a teacher that she decided to pursue a career in education. "I wanted to be just like her as a person and as a teacher," she said.

Once the GoFundMe effort shot past its initial goal, Dester said, she was approached by Casey's friends and colleagues in the Manhattan Beach schools about extending the fund so that they could contribute in her memory.

"It just speaks highly of her. It's clear all the love and support she had around her and how much people cared about her," Dester said.

That squares with what Casey's neighbors, teachers and friends in Vermont remember of her.

At BBA, English teacher Robert Hunter remembered Casey as having a wonderful smile and laugh, as well as an eagerness to live and be involved, whether it was basketball or writing or driving a four-wheeler. "She had just a wonderful energy," he said.

In her BBA yearbook entry, Casey had promised Hunter "I'll keep writing!" Tuesday, Hunter said that yearbook message brought back memories.

"Sandy was a very sensitive and strong young woman who had an artistic flair with her writing, and she wanted to do more with that. When I had looked at the yearbook I didn't even remember the shout-out she had given me, but obviously she felt good about what she was creating — writing, poetry," Hunter said. "She worked hard at that, and I think clearly from that quick comment she felt it was important for me to know that she was going to keep writing. That was a bright spot in all of this horror — to hear her voice when I opened that year book and read that. "

"In my memory she's a kid, so this kind of death is impactful," he said. "Sandy was a woman and a teacher, but I also think of her as a kid, and that kid has died. That's a horrible thing in a teacher's mind — in any person's mind. It's a strange thing to open that yearbook and hear that voice. "

In Manhattan Beach, a vigil was planned Tuesday night for Casey and for a Manhattan Beach police department technician, Rachael Parker, who was also killed in the shootings.

Assumption College president Francesco C. Cesareo said Casey embodied the school's spirit as an individual who was using her gifts to make a meaningful impact in this world," The Republican of Springfield, Mass., reported on its website.

A blood drive was being held on Assumption's campus on Tuesday afternoon, and a memorial Mass for Casey and the other victims of the shooting was being planned, the newspaper reported.

On Tuesday, Willemse expressed his gratitude on Facebook to those who had reached out following Casey's death.

"Thank you, everyone of you! The love and support that she and I have received during these trying times just shows how important this wonderful woman truly was," he wrote. "She lived life to the fullest and made me the happiest man in the world. I'm so grateful for the kind words and gestures, it means the world to me, especially for her."

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000.

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