Graduating to heaven: Family, friends remember Khalia Smith’s lasting impact at celebration of life

Published 2:45 pm Friday, May 5, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

Pulling up to The Worship Center Christian Church on Thursday, May 4, you could feel love pouring out of the building. From the men directing traffic in their “I make a difference” T-shirts to the warm welcome by many as you entered the doors, the love of one person spread to many.

It was the love of Khalia Smith.

Just a week after Khalia’s family and friends found out she had tragically died in a car crash, sending shockwaves through Helena High School’s student body just weeks before she was set to graduate, family and friends gathered at the church to celebrate her life.

Surrounded by vibrant flowers and a room full affection, tears flowed, but it quickly became clear—Khalia’s impact was alive and well.

“We are so grateful for the outpouring of love, breaking racial barriers as well, has been very intentional of God during this season,” Khalia’s sister Nakyah Smith said. “You saw so many different walks of life celebrating her. She didn’t care. You could have literally any background. Everyone was represented. That shows God’s love. Her heart was God’s love. It didn’t matter where you came from, she always wanted you to feel his love.”

Sitting in their living room surrounded by family pictures, scripture, words of love on many of them, it was evident that her family’s love for her and her love for the Lord drove Khalia’s impact and continues to do so.

“How we are as a family, I think molded her a lot,” said her dad DiAngelo Perry. “Our family dynamic in this household is pretty special. Between blending a family since 2007 and blending it to be whole and not separate. To not have it feel like a disconnect where you feel outside. Her personality, who she was, is behind how we pray and worship as a family.”

Her mom, LaQuita Perry, said that’s what has made the biggest impact on so many.

“We love deep. We love hard,” she said. “The love. That’s really what made the impact. God and her love.”

And it’s that legacy that carries on to this day.

“I hate when people speak of those who have passed away in past tense,” Helena High School teacher Josh Huggins said during the homegoing ceremony. “When someone like Khalia passes, their impact never ends. Their influence lasts forever. So, I won’t say Khalia was a rock. I will say, Khalia is a rock. A rock that was dropped in a pond, causing huge ripples that will continue to flow across the waters of this world until the end of time.”

Those words rang true in the days following her passing. Two days after, the football field at Helena High School was flooded by her ripple-effect, as students and others gathered at the stadium to honor her with special memories and a balloon release.

“I got video of students worshipping in the auditorium, they roped off her lunchroom seat and hung posters and had bears, flowers and candy,” LaQuita said. “She loved Chick-fil-A and they had Chick-fil-A sauces. It has been overwhelmingly supportive and showing love back. I feel like we get some of the love back that she gave to the community.”

Just as important, 40-plus students committed their lives to Jesus Christ.

Those 40 will in turn go on to inspire others, thus the ripple effect that will continue to flow, carrying on her dream and her legacy—a legacy her family will remember as Pastor Khalia living her destiny.

“We did a spiritual gift test, and it was cool that she got pastor in addition to a few other things,” LaQuita said. “Pastor was the one that stood out because in our eyes, that was the future. Now, we see she was already in it. Knowing she fulfilled that assignment was definitely full circle, but indescribable peace also. We were looking future, but it was already done.”

It was that confidence in herself, a uniqueness that her family saw in her at a young age, that her family says made Khalia such an impactful person to so many.

“She was very unique as a child. She would try to get little outfits that fit in with the current trends, but she would always go back to her style. Like girl, why are you trying?” Her mom said with a smile. “She was so unique in her style. She has clothes she never wore because she always went back to her uniqueness, and we always admired that about her. She stuck to what she knew and that was very special about her.”

She carried that poise into her relationship with God, and everything became intentional from there.

“She lived out her purpose, and she wants us to remember to walk in freedom,” Nakyah said during the ceremony.

Nakyah read a portion Khalia’s journal to those in attendance as well, saying she wanted to share her spiritual insights with the whole world.

“For years, I’ve let the devil get away. No more,” Nakyah read. “He will spit me out after tasting the goodness of God. The spirit is the highest most satisfying meal to the soul, healing all wounds and cuts. The armor of God is being placed on this family.”

Nakyah said she was so proud of her sister for being able to write down those words and for living out her purpose of changing lives through her impact.

“To anybody who feels alone, who feels like they’re an outcast, Lia didn’t care anything about that and she always wanted to show love to everybody, and I know she is so happy that so many have committed their lives to God because of her passing away, but ultimately, it’s God’s plan,” she said.

Those types of stories are the ones that stick out to retired Homewood Middle School Principal Jimmie Pearson, who was the principal when Khalia was at HMS. Pearson said during the ceremony that she had already graduated, despite being a few weeks away from Helena High School’s graduation when the tragic accident occurred.

“We all realize this is time for graduation,” Pearson said. “You might say it is going to be extra hard and sad because she is not here to celebrate this big day with you. But, I want you and her parents to know, she graduated the other day. You might ask, ‘How is that possible?’ Graduation is a transition from one important aspect of life to the next. She earned her BA—Born Again—diploma. She received it in a private ceremony. She actually graduated with honors. I truly believe, she would like for you to graduate with honors as well.”

Pearson said her classmates can graduate with honors and honor Khalia by being appreciative of parents, family and friends, like Khalia, who inspired them along the way.

Many showed their appreciation from Homewood at the homegoing. Despite Khalia being a senior at Helena, she spent many years in both communities, which led to three busloads of people from Homewood showing up in support.

“From her being in Homewood and Helena, with me working in Homewood and her going to school for those years, the impact she made on the Homewood community was special,” DiAngelo said. “To have three buses of kids there and people just melting in my arms the last week at school because of her spirit is just hard to explain the true love and impact she really, really had until now. Now, I know. Now, I see. I saw it before, but it’s so much deeper now, it’s right in your face. It’s so heavy it’s hard for people to even speak when they see me. They just melt. That love, it’s just so pure.”

LaQuita quickly chimed in with, “It’s God’s love.”

“Being able to see the love of the community, different people knocking on the door, showing love,” she said. “The people we didn’t even know she had an impact on, that’s really what shows us a glimpse of God’s vision so we can see a glimpse of what he wanted in this season.”

They saw that same glimpse of hope in what should have been a tragic site—the crash site.

Ultimately, however, the family found the true beauty of the Lord in the tragedy—maple trees.

“To know that the two trees she hit were maple trees and to know what they stand for, the beauty outweighs the pain,” LaQuita said. “I should not be able to talk. He definitely has shown the true beauty in it all, and that’s why I’m able to talk and even breathe right now. Everything was purposeful. Even in the tragedy.”

The maple tree signifies protection, love, longevity, balance and abundance, among other things, while a cross has been placed in between the two trees to symbolize Jesus, as the family and friends have beautified a difficult situation.

Now, the family knows she is at peace, taking solace in her favorite song, “Run to the Father” by Cody Carnes.

“She came home with my friend’s daughter one day and they were so excited, ‘The song’s so good momma, it’s so good,’” LaQuita said. “I got them to play it for me, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s an awesome song.’ I really started to listen to it by myself and understood it and was like, ‘That song is huge in heart and huge in spirit.’ That song really exemplifies her whole life.”

The song’s chorus reads, “I run to the Father, I fall into grace, I’m done hiding, no reason to wait, my heart needs a surgeon, my soul needs a friend, so I’ll run to the Father, again and again, and again, and again.”

Carnes has said the song is about both salvation and running to God every day, adding, it’s easy to run away from God, but that he has open arms and is a loving father waiting for us.

Khalia embraced that during her life, and is now fully in the Father’s arms.