Hundreds of candles lit the night outside of the G. Cecil Pruett Community Center Family YMCA where friends, family and community members mourned with Joselinne Rivera-Ruiz and her two daughters, Alanis and 5-year-old Yesiannie.
But many who spoke in Jorelys’ memory spread a message of hope rather than sadness for the 7-year-old girl as they shared pictures, songs and memories of the Canton Elementary School student who left her River Ridge apartment complex playgroud last Dec. 2 and never came back.
Ryan Brunn, a 20-year-old maintenance worker who lived at the apartment complex, committed suicide in prison just two days after pleading guilty to the murder and child molestation charges that would have kept him behind bars for life without the chance of parole.
Eloisa Gonzalez, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Canton, talked about how she often saw Jorelys in her church and how she knew one day she would see her again in heaven.
Gonzalez said Jorelys’ mother once told her about a dream she had about Jorelys flying to heaven as a beautiful butterfly.
“Jorelys was flying and beautiful,” Gonzalez said.
Amy Turcotte, director of development for Goshen Valley Boys Ranch, brought some good news to the Rivera-Ruiz family.
Turcotte said she plans to ask fellow members of the Cherokee Recreation and Parks Advisory Board at the board’s Wednesday meeting to consider naming a new park for Jorelys. The park slated for construction is off Brown Industrial Parkway near Etowah River.
Turcotte, formerly the female sports director for the Cherokee County Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said many community members have asked her how to help Jorelys’ family, especially her mother.
“She has never once asked for anything for herself,” Turcotte said through tears. “So many of her needs and desires are nothing that we’ll ever be able to accomplish here on earth.”
Turcotte said she persisted and discovered Rivera-Ruiz wanted her 5-year-old, known as Yessie, to have dance lessons. Christi Hinkley with Academy of Dance Arts in Canton then came forward with a scholarship for dance lessons as Yessie jumped for joy.
Additionally, Turcotte said Goshen Valley Boys Ranch, a nonprofit that helps young men in the foster care system, made a donation to Canton-Cherokee radKIDS, a program geared at educating children about safety that was brought to Cherokee last year by local children’s activist Bianca Cummings and Sgt. Stacy Bailey with the Canton Police Department as a proactive response to the Jorelys Rivera murder.
Turcotte also gave an update on Rivera-Ruiz, saying she has a steady job, home of her own and has recently obtained her drivers license.
“She is an amazing, amazing mother,” Turcotte said. “She is such a good mom and she is so wonderful… God really turns clouds into rainbows.”
Jorelys’ best friend, Emily, was too shy to read a letter she wrote to Rivera-Ruiz, so Turcotte read it to the crowd. In her letter, Emily wrote about how she and Jorelys would paint their nails and go rollerskating together and how much she missed her friend.
“I will always love you and remember you forever,” Emily’s letter said.
Through a translator, Rivera-Ruiz said she hopes the community remembers her daughter as “a bright, outgoing, energetic girl.”
Rivera-Ruiz thanked Canton Police Department and YMCA for the help they provided over last year and gave a special thanks to Bailey and Cummings for putting the event together.
When asked what gives her her strength, Rivera-Ruiz said “mis hijas,” or her daughters.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she said, but added love from friends and family have helped her through.
Jorelys Rivera’s abduction and murder continued to make national headlines last year after an investigation revealed mistakes within Canton Police Department in the way it handled the case, leading former Police Chief Jeff Lance to resign.
Chief Robert Merchant, who took over the lead role for Canton Police Department in May, said at Sunday’s vigil there is a change of mindset within the department, including a greater sense of urgency in responding to child abductions and similar cases.
“There are some very detailed checklists, not only for the responding officers but the investigators to follow,” Merchant said.
Merchant said the outpouring from the community at the vigil showed the lasting impact of Jorelys’ murder.
“This was a very tragic incident, but I do believe that our response from the police department will be better in the future and this community’s better off for it,” Merchant said.
District Attorney-elect Shannon Wallace said she and her husband Kyle brought her two children to the vigil to show support for the family, as she worked heavily on the case.
“It kind of hit home to me because Jorelys was the same age as my little girl,” Wallace said. “I wanted my children to be a part of something that was a big part of my life for a while and to know what goes on in our community.”