In memory of Karson Whitesell: ‘I know I’ll see my daughter again’

The late Karson Whitesell (left) hugs a child she met during a mission trip. The 19 year-old was dedicated to mission work when she was shot and killed in a random attack in Fort Mill one year ago. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Harrison)

YORK COUNTY – It’s been one year since that tragic day.

It started out just like any other day – Jan. 23, 2018. It was a Tuesday, Debbie Harrison remembers.

She had spoken to her daughter, 19-year-old Karson Whitesell, just before 1 p.m. when Whitesell’s shift began at The Peach Stand, an iconic food market in Fort Mill.

That would be the last time she would ever hear Karson’s voice.

Whitesell was shot and killed in a random attack by Christopher Mendez, who was sentenced in December to life in prison. Police said Mendez, of Lancaster, did not know Whitesell and that Mendez, who has a history of mental illness, had been planning to shoot and kill himself outside the store before he targeted Whitesell instead.

The rest of that day was a blur, as Harrison’s world shattered and she wondered how she would ever pick up the pieces.

But Harrison decided that wasn’t going to be the end of her daughter’s story.

Debbie Harrison, Karson Whitesell’s mother, speaks about her late daughter at a program held at Illumine Church in Rock Hill to remember her a year after she was killed at work at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill.

“I determined that love and light would overcome the evil that took (Karson) from this world,” she said.

Now at the one-year mark of her daughter’s death, Harrison is more determined than ever to preserve Karson’s memory and legacy, and to help others, as Karson did.

It is out of that determination that the nonprofit Karson’s Kompassion Project was born.

Most of the time when a parent loses a child, people eventually stop talking about the deceased child, Harrison explained. People not remembering your child is a grieving parent’s worst fear, Harrison said, adding that she is in a different situation in that thousands upon thousands more people know who Karson is today than they did before her passing.

“I determined that love and light would overcome the evil that took (Karson) from this world.”

Debbie Harrison, Karson’s mother

“I was given a unique platform – because of the way (Karson) died – that I’m not going to squander,” Harrison said.

It was fitting to start a nonprofit centered around helping the community, because Karson lived her life in service to others, her mom said.

The summer before she died, Karson served as a missionary in Africa, spending a month in Swaziland and a month in South Africa. While there, Karson served at an orphanage and her love for the children and for mission work grew.

A pastor speaks during the service to honor Karson Whitesell a year after she was murdered at The Peach Stand in Fort Mill (Video by Kelly Lessard).

Karson wanted her mom to join her the following summer in Swaziland – “She just kept talking about it,” Debbie remembers – and they had been trying to work out the logistics for the trip.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” Harrison said. “The day that she died, I remember saying that night, that I knew I had to go.”

Harrison has since been to Africa twice, and will return this year, to serve where her daughter served, to love the children that Karson loved and talked about constantly.

Harrison smiled.

“Now I understand why she talked about them so much.”

Harrison has leaned on her strong Christian faith to help her face life since that fateful day at The Peach Stand.

“Personally, I feel that (my faith) is the only reason that I’m still here,” she said.

Harrison said she has never once questioned, “Why me?” or “Why my child?”

“I believe Satan led Christopher Mendez to The Peach Stand that day,” Harrison said. “To question, ‘Why me?’ is to wish it on someone else’s kid. If it hadn’t been my child, it would have been someone else’s child – and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

During the sentencing hearing for Mendez, Harrison hugged the mother of her daughter’s killer and the two shared whispers and tears as they embraced.

“It was important to me to tell her that I didn’t blame her,” Harrison said. “No one raises their son to be a murderer.”

The two mothers also told each other that they both pray for the other every day.

“I think (Karson) would have been proud of me for doing that,” Harrison said.

A prayer and remembrance service was held at Illumine Church in Rock Hill to mark the one-year anniversary of Karson’s passing.

Harrison spoke to the crowd of around 50 supporters.

“People ask me about my faith and how I made it through this year, and I told them that when you have an event (like this) happen, that your faith is going to do one of two things, it is not going to stay the same – it is either going to fall away or it’s going to get strengthened,” she said.

“I had to know that I was going to see my daughter again, so I leaned in to my faith and I stand her tonight, a year after learning that my daughter was killed, with a stronger faith, a more confident faith, than I had a year ago.”

“I can look back over the last year and the last months and weeks and see all the things that God put in place to lead me to this point, to stand in front of you and to tell you that I know that I put one foot in front of the other every day because of my God, and I know that I will see my daughter again, because of that.”

Upcoming events

Community events have been planned through this summer for Karson’s Kompassion Project, and they will mirror events from 2018:

  • The first KKP led event was Kommunity Kare Day, a day of community service held in Karson’s honor on her birthday, Feb. 18. This year the event will be held on Feb. 17 at Illumine Church. The public is invited to participate.
  • The next event, Kuddles for Kids, is held in May. Kuddles for Kids is a stuffed animal collection drive to provide local law enforcement with something reassuring to give to children that they meet while on duty. Over 3,000 stuffed animals were collected, divided and distributed to the Fort Mill and Tega Cay Police Departments, the York County Sheriff’s Office and the Rock Hill and York Police Departments.
  • A team mission trip to Africa is planned for July 5-16. For more information on any of these events, visit the Karson’s Kompassion Project page on Facebook.

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