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A Giving Legacy: Two Daughters Whose Light Shines On this Holiday Season

While Sheila Deese and Wendy Kroll experienced the loss of their daughters 25 years apart, the more you learn about their stories, time becomes irrelevant as common threads emerge, beginning with how the girls chose to live. Both abundantly selfless and fearless, Chynna and Kyle are remembered by loved ones as upbeat, generous, and eager to embrace new challenges. With the national attention surrounding their stories, Sheila and Wendy attribute the support from KinderMourn as central to their ability to navigate their grief, and their commitment to carry the light their daughters brought into the world in small ways every day, and particularly during the holidays.

Despite being the youngest of four, Chynna was somewhat of an old soul, naturally drawn to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds. Shelia describes her as someone who was “such a unique combination of resilience, high emotional intelligence and a deep caring spirit.” Chynna relished forging new connections and particularly loved children. As a teenager, she spent several summers as a camp counselor and volunteered another summer working with children with special needs. Chynna’s love for helping others naturally bloomed into volunteering, and at the young age of 13, she joined her mom to sort shoeboxes for children in need as part of Operation Christmas Child. Almost serendipitously, the cause represented some of the things Chynna would hold most dear as she grew into a young woman – fellowship with loved ones for a cause that touched others across the globe. Sheila recalls the fulfillment Chynna got knowing that each box they put together would mean that child would have a little better holiday. One year, out of the blue, Chynna decided to put a smiley face on every shoebox she packed. “This seemingly small gesture was the way Chynna saw the world,” Sheila said. “She was always looking to bring joy to someone else.”

As Chynna got older, she pursued international travel and encouraged her three older siblings, Stetson, Kennedy and British, to join her. By the age of 24, she had visited

13 countries. It was during one of her travels in 2019 when Chynna and her boyfriend, Lucas, were murdered when their van broke down on the outskirts of British Columbia. In the early months following Chynna’s death, Sheila’s grief for her daughter was further exacerbated by increased media attention and an ongoing investigation. “KinderMourn became my everything because it gave me the permission to grieve in the way I needed to,” Sheila said. Eventually, Sheila realized that grief and joy can coexist.

 

That first Christmas after her daughter’s death, Sheila decided she wanted to continue hosting a volunteer group for Operation Christmas Child, but this time, in honor of Chynna. Sheila attributes her personal faith and the support she received from KinderMourn for giving her the strength to move forward. This year will be no different, as family and friends of Chynna and Sheila will come together to assemble shoeboxes in Chynna’s memory. “Chynna made friends wherever she went,” Sheila said, “so the idea of gathering together to do something that meant so much to her is really special.”

Equally naturally kind and generous, Kyle was remembered by her classmates as someone who always looked out for others, even at a young age. Wendy describes her daughter as someone “who had a really big heart,” and during her memorial service, all 18 of her elementary classmates chose to stand up and share something special about Kyle. One classmate shared how she got lost in the school hallway one time, and even though the girls didn’t know each other, Kyle helped her find her class. Another girl talked about how she would sometimes find herself alone on the playground and Kyle would invite her over to play with her and her friends, so she wasn’t alone. Long and lean, Kyle was naturally athletic, and Kyle’s father Tom, came home in amazement one evening after participating with his daughter in the school’s field day. Wendy recalls him exclaiming, “You would have not believed it - not just the way she excelled at the obstacles, but the time and attention she took to help her teammates through the course, it was remarkable.”

In 1994, the Krolls had just moved to Charlotte with Kyle, who was 9 (2 weeks shy of her 10th birthday), and their son Austen, who was 7, when Kyle was fatally injured during a hiking accident in the North Carolina mountains. As newcomers to the area, Wendy and Tom had few friends or family to lean on, and as Wendy put it, “KinderMourn became our lifeline.” Speaking of the KinderMourn support group they joined, she said, “it is so incredibly helpful to be able to connect with others who truly understand what you are going through.” One evening after a group session, Wendy fondly recalls how she and Tom pulled up to a stop light, looked over and saw another couple in the group they felt a particular connection with. Instinctively, Wendy jumped out of the car, knocked on their window, and asked if they wanted to grab dinner. From that point forward, the couples got together after every session, and for years, supported each other through many milestones.

Several years after losing Kyle, the couple welcomed another daughter, Katie, and even though the sisters never had a chance to meet, their physical resemblance is striking. Wendy speaks about how Katie is always so eager and interested to learn as much as she can about her older sister. When Katie was little, Wendy purchased a watercolor painting of an angel because it made her think of Kyle. She placed it over Katie’s bed as a reminder of Kyle and told her that her big sister was always watching over her. It was also around this time that one of Wendy’s friends gifted her with an angel figurine, and over the years, Wendy began adding more and more angels to her collection. Today the Krolls have angels in every room of their home, and in some cases, multiple angels in one room. “The figurines are incorporated so naturally with other objects in the rooms that other people may not notice them, but Tom, Austen, Katie and I are aware of their presence. Like the angels, Kyle is part of this home, always here, part of us.” As part of their traditional family holiday card, the Krolls include each of their names on the card along with, “and our angel, Kyle.” For Christmas Eve dinner, the family celebrates a Polish meal, which includes a tradition where a wafer is set aside for the people who have passed away. “Tom always sets aside a wafer for Kyle, and we take turns going around the table to share a story about her, what she meant to us, as well as speak to what we’re grateful for that year. For us, it’s another way to honor Kyle by making her part of this tradition in a special way,” Wendy says.

The Krolls’ loss has recently become more widely known from the reality television show “Southern Charm,” where Austen speaks openly about his older sister, Kyle. “I am so proud of Austen for having the courage to speak so authentically about his sister,” says Wendy. “I’ve had strangers approach me to talk about it, and it has opened a door to let others know they are not alone.”

For the Deese family, as Chynna did, they focus on bringing as much light as they can to others, even in the smallest of acts. Chynna always loved sunflowers, and a few months after her death, her brother British planted a field of sunflowers at Sheila’s childhood home. The sunflowers continue to come back each spring, a reminder that Chynna is always close by. And at Operation Christmas Child this year, volunteers will be invited to draw smiley faces on the boxes, carrying Chynna’s joy forward, just the way she would have wanted.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bennett, for sharing their stories.

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