FORT MILL, S.C. — Friends, family, and even those who didn’t know 19-year-old Karson Whitesell said their final goodbyes Saturday morning.
Whitesell, from Rock Hill, was shot and killed earlier this week while working at the popular Peach Stand in Fort Mill.
The Peach Stand was closed as employees attended Whitesell’s funeral. The store will reopen Sunday.
A banner hung outside the Illumine Church in Rock Hill, paying tribute to Whitesell’s life.
Pastor Kent Reeder said 528 chairs were set up, and all of them were filled.
“We're making it, but it's hard,” Reeder said.
Police said a 28-year-old Christopher Mendez stormed the Peach Stand Tuesday and shot Whitesell in what they believe was a random crime.
Reeder, who was Whitesell’s pastor, is among many who still have questions about her death.
“The thing that gives me hope in this is that Karson was part of the family of God,” Reeder said. “If she didn't, this would be a way worse day, but it doesn't have to be for anybody.”
Friends and family traveled from all over the country to be at Whitesell’s funeral, including Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio.
A group that met Whitesell last summer on a mission trip in Africa, where they built homes for orphaned children, attended the service.
“We were the lucky few who got to know her,” friend Madison Hicks said. “Just for two months, she made such an impact on our lives and I can imagine, in 19 years, how many lives she touched.”
With voices trembling, Whitesell’s closest friends remember the good times.
“I'm so happy that I got to spend the time I did with her,” friend Shelby Hinnant said.
“At 19, to have that kind of impact, it's awesome and it's amazing,” Reeder said.
There was also a special prayer during the service for Whitesell’s coworkers who were at the Peach Stand when she was killed.
“She really used her time perfectly in the years that she did have,” friend Caitlin Clardy said. “For her to be so young, and to be like so, all in, at that age, it's just inspiring to me because when I was 19 I was not at that point.”
On Friday, hundreds gathered at the church to honor Whitesell's life during visitation hours.
"She had those big blue eyes that would always light up a classroom," said Kimberly Yarbrough, Whitesell’s high school teacher.
People who knew her shared memories about her infectious laugh and the joy she brought into their lives, celebrating her life the way she would have wanted.
"She was always smiling. She could always find a way to make people laugh and smile," said Megan Austin, a childhood friend of Whitesell.
Tables inside the church sanctuary were set up with brown paper and markers for people to write down memories or qualities of Whitesell’s that will later be used to make a scrapbook for her family.
"We know she's in a better place,” Austin said. “We know that she's not feeling pain and we know that she is with God, so we need to celebrate that and rejoice in that."
Whitesell’s artwork and pictures were also displayed throughout the church. All the flowers that family, friends and those who didn’t know Whitesell were asked to bring to the Peach Stand for Thursday night’s candlelight vigil are displayed at the church in Whitesell’s honor.
While the reality of Whitesell’s death doesn’t get any easier, Reeder said, the community has come together.
"Our lives are now united because of what's happened to Karson and all that she meant to people," Reeder said.
“Her legacy will live on through service. I can’t harp on that enough, because that was so important to her,” Austin said.
Mendez was arrested without incident after police said he opened fire in the store, killing Whitesell.
Employees and customers were nearby when the shooting happened, but no one else was hurt.
Police have not said whether Whitesell and Mendez knew each other, and have not released any motive, but they said there is no indication that the shooting was related to a robbery or to domestic violence.
On Thursday evening, at the Peach Stand, nearly 200 people stood in solidarity at an emotional candlelight vigil for Whitesell.
People were asked to bring candles with protected flames and a flower.
Whitesell’s family, her boyfriend, her friends and strangers mourned and celebrated a teenager who devoted her life to mission trips and serving others.
"She was my best friend. It's just so hard to lose her like this,” Whitney Carter said. "Karson really had an impact on everybody."
Whitesell's best friends said she never met a stranger.
"I just wish everybody could have met her because she was such a great, loving person,” Carter said. “Even if she didn't know you, she talked to you like she did.”
Whitesell had a passion for going on mission trips, including the one she took to Africa, and embracing cultures and helping build shelters for children orphaned by the AIDS crisis.
“She's such a giving person,” Hinnant said. "She loves. She loves so much."
"She did it because she was a very generous person and it was what she felt was the best way to serve the world,” Reeder said.
A fund has been set up in Whitesell’s name to honor charitable work in Africa, which was dear to her heart.
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