Akuel Majouk, Mariana Ramirez, Jennifer Guzman, and Yoselin Deleon died Saturday evening on a stretch of Nebraska highway after Majouk swerved to avoid a deer.
Each had ties to Creighton University, and on Sunday evening the Creighton community encircled family and friends in a Mass that celebrated the women’s lives, while giving voice to grief.
“Their families are a part of our family,” said Shannon Roussy of the Tau Delta chapter of Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority, which three of the women belonged to.
Their sorority sisters lined the entrance to St. John Church on the Creighton University campus, wearing leather sorority jackets and holding pink roses that symbolized friendship. Roussy said the tight-knit sisterhood would try to support the women’s families as best they could.
In his homily, the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson urged the community to hold together.
“Akuel, Jennifer, Yo-yo and Mariana were our classmates, students, sisters, friends and daughters,” said Hendrickson, president of Creighton. “They were spirited women. They served their communities. They advocated the diversity of their own lives. They were sorority sisters. And they were so much more. And we will miss them.”
Stunned friends and family members had gathered and grieved throughout the day Sunday — at the homes of the young women, at the scene of the crash where a makeshift memorial had sprung up and on campus.
Outside the Majouk home near 30th and V Streets, Khair Majouk had said earlier in the day that his older sister and the other women were headed to Kansas City to visit an injured friend.
“(Sunday) would have been Akuel’s 22nd birthday,” he said. “She was graduating in May with a degree in finance.”
At Yoselin Deleon’s home, her two younger sisters had said Yoselin was the first in their family to graduate high school, and was well on her way to a college degree.
“She was my role model even though I never admitted it,” said 16-year-old Natalie Varela-Rios. “I was always trying to be like her.”
The leadership skills of Mariana Ramirez had already earned high praise. Ramirez had been selected for the Mayor’s Youth Community Award and was named one of the 10 Outstanding Teens of Omaha award, her sister said.
“She was humble, yet had no fear, and chased after her dreams tirelessly,” her younger sister, Rebecca, said.
Guzman’s mother, Bertha Guzman, speaking through an interpreter, said her daughter “studied hard and put school before anything else.” Through her tears, the mother said she will remember her daughter as always smiling.
Deleon, Majouk and Guzman were students in Creighton University’s Heider College of Business. Ramirez had attended Creighton for two years and was preparing to return.
At Sunday’s Mass, students sobbed as they hugged one another. Whispers of “I’m sorry” and “Oh, God” lifted from the somber crowd. St. John Church overflowed its 750-person capacity by more than 150 people. Those in attendance wore pink and purple ribbons. The last people in grabbed folding chairs. Dozens of others stood in the back, while others were ushered to sit in the side altars.
The Mass began with “Amazing Grace.”
Many students and family members talked about their memories of the four women, their leadership in the community, potential to make a difference in the world. But their comments had one commonality — the girls all had “beautiful souls.”
Deleon, Majouk and Guzman were the three members of the Tau Delta chapter of Sigma Lambda Gamma. The sorority is raising money to help the women’s families with funeral expenses. Donations are being accepted on Gofundme for the Tau Delta Sisters’ Funeral Fund.
“We remember them for the joy, laughter and charisma these girls brought with them,” the sorority said in a Facebook announcement.
Creighton’s Division of Student Life and the Office of Mission and Ministry will provide counseling to those in need and support the families impacted by this tragedy, Hendrickson said.
The crash that took the women’s lives occurred about 7:30 p.m. Saturday on U.S. Highway 77 south of Beatrice, according to Deb Collins of the Nebraska State Patrol.
That such a collision would occur wouldn’t be surprising to wildlife officials or accident experts.
In Nebraska, most collisions between deer and cars occur at this time of year and after dusk. Deer are on the move in the fall because mating season has gotten underway and there is less shelter due to harvest.
Majouk was driving a 2001 Honda CRV south on the highway and swerved to miss a deer, Collins said. In doing so, she apparently turned the side of the Honda into the path of oncoming traffic. Her CRV was broad-sided by a 1999 Toyota 4Runner driven by Robert Saunders, 60, of Waverly, according to Collins.
Saunders was transported by helicopter to Bryan Medical Center’s west campus in Lincoln with serious but not life-threatening injuries.
All occupants of both vehicles were wearing seat belts, Collins said.
World-Herald staff writers Alia Conley and Katie Carroll contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1272, email@example.com
Akuel Majouk: She worked to help South Sudanese
On the day that Akuel Majouk would have turned 22, family and friends gathered to mourn her death, recalling her devotion to her faith and her home country.
Majouk was well-known in the close-knit South Sudanese community in Omaha. Friends and family characterized Majouk as a hard worker who wanted to help other refugees put down roots in Omaha. She helped translate documents, gave car rides and sent payments for bills for her mother and others, said her aunt Alwel Akon.
“She helped people find a job,” Akon said. “She loved kids and all of the community.”
Her work ethic was well known, too. She had helped put herself though college by working at a packing plant in Iowa for a summer.
Majouk went back to South Sudan recently to visit her village and see her grandmother, Akon said.
“She wanted to go back home to help,” she said.
Khair Majouk said his older sister was going to graduate in May with a degree in finance. He said his sister had graduated from Omaha Mercy High School and worked part time at First National Bank of Omaha. The Majouk family came to the U.S. from Sudan via Egypt in 1999.
Colleen Botsios, who knew Majouk from All Saints Catholic School, recalled how she wanted to return to South Sudan.
“She was a very religious Catholic with a strong faith, and she wanted to help the people of Africa,” Botsios said.
— Natasha Rausch
Mariana Ramirez: Her smile could light up a room
Mariana Ramirez is described by friends and family as a bright person, avid volunteer, and the girl who could light up the room with just her smile.
Rebecca Ramirez, Mariana’s younger sister, said she was a self-motivated person and a hard worker who always put others first.
“The favorite thing about my sister was her sense of humor,” Rebecca said. “She could make everyone laugh, and her smile was contagious.”
Ramirez graduated from Bellevue West High School in 2012, receiving the Mayor’s Youth Community Award and one of the 10 Outstanding Teens of Omaha Awards.
She started work at the Omaha Public Library, and was later employed by OneWorld Community Health Centers, where she had just recently received a promotion.
She also enjoyed volunteering at the Rainbow House and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Omaha, her sister said.
She had attended Creighton University with a full-ride scholarship and become a part of the Tau Delta Chapter of Sigma Lambda Gamma national sorority.
Her sister said that after two years, Mariana took some time off school to focus on work. She was planning to return for the spring semester.
Rebecca said her family is very close, and they are sticking together as best they can, reminding each other that Mariana is in a better place.
— Katie Carroll
Yoselin Deleon: She never turned down an opportunity
Yoselin Deleon was the first generation of her family to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.
Her younger sister, 16-year-old Natalie Varela-Rios, who has been following in Deleon’s footsteps throughout her life — “She did cross country and played soccer, so I did them, too” — is determined to carry through what Deleon started.
“I want to make her proud,” Varela-Rios said. “I’m going to go to Creighton, too.”
Deleon’s sister said she wants people to know her story — how her sister made people laugh, and how she helped others, especially immigrants.
Deleon, the oldest of four, attended Bryan High School and then received a diversity scholarship to Creighton University, where she was to have graduated in May with a business degree.
Her family and friends described her as “fearless,” “the life of the party,” always “fun and happy.”
Her sister said Deleon loved to travel.
“She always said ‘yes,’ and never turned down an opportunity,” Varela-Rios said.
Deleon’s two younger sisters were still in shock Sunday evening as people and cars gathered outside their one-story home in South Omaha. Family friends and Deleon’s younger siblings greeted guests as their parents sat inside.
“I don’t believe that she’s gone,” Varela-Rios said. “I’m still waiting to see her smile when she comes home.”
Barely a month ago, Deleon traveled to Philadelphia with her mother to see Pope Francis.
Brought to tears at seeing the pontiff, she turned to her mother and said, “Now I can die in peace.”
— Natasha Rausch
Jennifer Guzman: A beautiful person with a beautiful soul
Tall and beautiful, Jennifer Guzman is leaving a hole that cannot be filled.
At home she was the one “who held the family together” and made holidays special, said her brother, Jonathan. He said his sister worked part-time for Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
“She was tall and beautiful, but she also was the one who made jokes,” he said. “She organized games for Christmas and birthdays.”
Bertha Guzman, Jennifer’s mother, described her daughter through an interpreter as “a very pretty girl, who studied hard and put school before anything else.” Bertha Guzman said her lasting memory of her daughter will be her smile.
Guzman graduated from Bryan High School and was working on a degree in economics, said her cousin, Daisy Perez-Guzman.
“She was a very caring person who always wanted what was best for everyone,” Perez-Guzman said.
Guzman also had worked at the Creighton Business Institute, and Jennifer Metzler, director of the institute, recalled her as “a beautiful person; (she) had a beautiful soul.”
“She helped many of my students,” Metzler said. “She was always front and center in the office and had a beautiful smile for everyone who walked in.”
— Natasha Rausch