PROFILE: Someone To Look Up To

By ALEC ETHEREDGE / Managing Editor

Sitting in her patrol car outside of Elvin Hill Elementary School, Sasha Lilly Knighten rolls down her window with her left hand while holding a phone in the right hand. “Hold on, hold on, someone is flagging me down,” she says over the phone with a brash tone through a clear smirk on her face. “It’s the superintendent. One of the kids took another kids’ bag of chips today. I’m just putting out fires left and right.”

This moment is near the end of the school day for Sasha, who is tasked with looking after four different schools as the Columbiana School Resource Officer, making stops at each throughout the day.

Walking through each school, different thoughts pass through her head, but the goal remains the same—impacting lives.

“During (my time at) each school, I try to interact with the students. Some days, I may go into the classroom and give a lesson on what they’re learning or something I’m dealing with while on patrol,” Sasha says. “The kids are what makes this job for me. You learn something different from them every day, whether it’s a game or a Tik Tok; it may even be something from their home life. Just seeing the kids and their reactions to different things and learning their daily routines to how they do things.”

As part of the Columbiana Police Department for 17 years and the city’s school resource officer for the past five years, Sasha has provided a listening ear to students from the elementary school to the high school, and makes them smile and doesn’t lose faith in them when they make a mistake.

The Scream Team  

Entering the lunchroom alongside the Scream Team, a mentor group from the high school, on Halloween day, 2019, Sasha wears a bandana along with the rest of the team, who is decked out in Halloween gear. It’s clear she’s set for one of the most fun lunches at Elvin Hill each year.

Soon after, music starts blaring, and the singing and dancing begins. Students, faculty, the Scream Team and Sasha are showing off their best dance moves on stage. Some of the kids struggle to keep their food down from laughter while looking on, especially when principal Courtney Madison starts singing.

The purpose of the Halloween dance party was to talk about safety during trick or treating later that night, especially the term “stranger danger.”

“It’s all about trying to get them to loosen up and have fun to show a side they don’t get to in the classroom,” Sasha says. “It relaxes them and helps them get out of their comfort zone. Even the teachers do it. The students get to see the teachers’ fun side, and the teachers get to see the shelled in talent the kids have.”

That’s just one of many times throughout the year that the Scream Team comes to the elementary school. It gives the younger students an opportunity to look up to the older high school students, and it gives the high schoolers a sense of responsibility as role models.

“(Sasha) mentors all of these kids. I don’t know how to tell you how great she is,” second grade teacher Jennifer Long says. “It’s a mixture of kids. It’s not always the wealthiest or most popular that are part of the Scream Team. The kids absolutely have a blast with it both in high school and at Elvin Hill.”

Sasha also invites high school senior athletes or other leaders to the elementary school as mentors. It’s all part of making sure each student has the best chance to grow and mature—big or small.

“They get to see kids that may be missing that at home,” she says. “Those high school kids were once in their position and get to come over twice a week to talk about home life or their day in general. That’s something that is special to them.”

A superhero

You’d think a celebrity was walking down the red carpet when Sasha enters the elementary school to oohs and ahs coming from the students. And in many ways, that’s just what she is.

“My goal when I became a police officer was to not only help people but give people someone they could look up to,” she says. “In order to be it you have to see it. If you see somebody that looks like you, it gives you a sense of feeling that, ‘Oh I can be that.’ And that helps that self-motivation because some people aren’t self-motivated. It gives other children motivation that they can do this. Not just because of their skin color or because they’re a male or female but because it’s what they want to be. It’s not just a saying that you can do anything. You really can.”

Whether she’s reading a book to the students at Elvin Hill during Read Across America Week, helping coach the high school girls basketball team or protecting the students in each school from potential dangers, she does it all to earn their trust and give them someone to look up to.

“She is a local celebrity when she walks into the school,” Madison says. “They’re waving, calling her name and get so excited. They welcome her every time she is in the building.”

Her celebrity status was on full display after she had to miss some time at school during January of 2020 due to a health issue. When she returned, she opened the doors to the school to the usual screaming students cheering and applauding with welcome back posters in their hands.

Then, Sasha saw something unusual—herself.  The school had created a mannequin with Sasha’s face on it and a sign hanging around it that reads, “Free hugs.”

Sasha hates hugs. She’s more likely to give you a hard time with a laugh and smile kind of person when showing affection. But on this day, she couldn’t help but smile and accept the hugs—the mannequin version of course.

“I was very shocked and heartfelt for the kids to actually miss me and show how much they missed me,” Sasha says. “It was so special because I missed them. I was also thankful for the teachers and administrators for everything they did. They reached out and helped me and made sure my kids were good. I’m grateful for that.”

And that sense of community was even stronger during one of Sasha’s most difficult life moments.

Breath taken away

Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, started as a normal day for the Lilly family. But at 5:17 p.m. that afternoon, their family was changed forever when Sasha’s 28-year-old brother Darius Lilly was hit head first by a drunk driver.

Lilly died on the scene, while his daughter in the backseat miraculously survived and wasn’t seriously injured. Even more tragic, however, was that the accident happened just two weeks after Lilly’s 2-year-old son died from a medical condition.

“That period of time was tough. We lost my nephew in November and my brother in December. Those are holiday times and I come from a big family, and we are very family oriented,” Sasha says. “It took our breath away when my nephew passed and really tested us when my brother passed away.”

Lilly was a big part of a tight family as the one that could put a smile on all of their faces no matter what was going on. “My brother Darius was the glue and the smile to bringing my family together on holidays and Sundays,” Sasha says.

But these tragic events put life in perspective for her, especially when it came to spending time with her family and the importance of her job.

“My family will forever be grateful for the city of Columbiana and those who provided meals and love and most of all prayers during that time because it was extremely difficult,” she says. “Especially because of caring for his daughter, who survived that wreck. It’s still difficult, but we are God-fearing people.”

And then it was time to go back to work and try to put all of the sorrow and pain aside to focus on her job.

But as soon as those students started screaming her name, she felt at home. “Coming back to work was my sanctuary,” Sasha says. “It got me through it. My brother didn’t want us to be crying or to be sad. We knew his relationship with God was good. He was OK and my nephew was OK. So that allowed some comfort. It’s still a nightmare to this day, but we carry him with us today. He’s smiling on us and we’re smiling back.”

Love for the Kids

Two years ago, Sasha knew teacher Jennifer Long needed some help with her second grade class, so she stepped in and created a game of Jeopardy.

“She spent the last two nine weeks coming in every Friday to play Jeopardy with our kids,” Long says. “It could be something we were learning or something the kids already knew, but some were struggling to be on teams in different activities. By the end of the school year, those kids who needed it knew how to be a team player.”

Sasha not only took the time to help the class, but also thought of the idea on her own and created the categories and questions. “That’s her,” Long says. “Developing those relationships, they feel like they can talk to her about anything. She always has a smile on her face and is one of the sweetest people with the biggest heart. She’s always there for you.”

Every day of the week, Sasha is thinking of ways to help the students just like she did in that class two years ago. “I love these kids. My love for them is limitless,” Sasha says. “They’re why I get up in the morning. I love what I do. I’m eager to see what the day is going to bring. The satisfaction they bring to me each day. That’s why I do what I do. They bring me a joy.”

With that love, she’s so much more than a role model, she’s a hero to many who look up to her.