New Castle News

November 28, 2013

Mother finds ways to honor daughter’s memory

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Following the death of her daughter, Shirley “Sam” Phillips admits she contemplated suicide.

But remembering that Danielle Lee Kennedy decried the act of taking one’s own life chased away those desperate thoughts.

Instead, she found a way to honor her daughter’s memory.

Danielle died at age 16 on Oct. 10, 2006, in Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh, from injuries sustained in an auto accident two days earlier. Danielle was one of four people killed following a two-car collision at the intersection of Skyhill Road and Route 551. The crash instantly claimed the lives of 19-year-old Dennis Vestal of Hubbard and 22-year-old Jesse Hoover of Girard, Ohio. Heather Vestal, 21, of Greenville, who was Dennis Vestal’s cousin, suffered severe injuries and has since recovered. She was the driver of their car, which struck a southbound car driven by Dorothy Davis of Darlington. Her husband, Larry, died three months later from injuries he sustained in the accident.

Celebrating the holidays after the death of a child is difficult, but Phillips remains vigilant. She places a Christmas tree at the site of the accident every December.


After three years in a deep, dark depression, Phillips emerged with a new purpose.

She credits Jesse Weber, who went to school with Danielle, with making a difference in her life. Weber offered a shoulder to cry on, coming to the house two or three times a week. “I love her like my own child,” said Phillips.

“Since Danielle passed I just wanted to help kids,” she said.

“I don’t do things to be acknowledged, but because it would make Danielle proud,” Phillips said. Those “things” include using monies from the Danielle Lee Kennedy Memorial Fund to sponsor organizations and events that benefit children and teens.

Through the Shenango Valley Foundation, two scholarships were established in Danielle’s memory for students at Hubbard (Ohio) High School and the Lawrence County Career and Technical School, both of which she had attended.

Phillips recently gave $5,000 to the Shop With a Cop program. It was only later that she learned the event would take place Dec. 5, which would have been Danielle’s 24th birthday.

There also were donations to the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County and the City Rescue Mission.

Last year, they used $11,000 to rent a U-Haul and deliver food, laundry, diapers, dog food and cat food to a New Jersey food bank and at a local humane society to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy.


Phillips endured hard times as a child with an abusive father who constantly berated her.

She was bullied in school. She took the name Sam from the initials that would have resulted had she married a high school boyfriend.

She left home at age 18 and was homeless for the next eight years. She became pregnant with in 1989.

“I put myself into a lot of bad situations but I blamed the world my whole life until I turned 40,” Phillips said.

Having Danielle was the best thing that ever happened to Sam, but meeting Dan Phillips also changed her life for the better. They met online, but it has blossomed into a wonderful relationship. After two previous failed marriages, Sam has found her soul mate. They’ve been together for 10 years.

“He wasn’t fake about anything,” Sam said. Most of the conversation on their first date dealt with what would be the best motor to put into it her 1989 Mustang.

Danielle approved of Dan, too. “She sat down with him and said there are some things I want you to know about my mother,” Sam said.

Phillips credits Dan with helping her get through the darkest of days.

Sam, 50, had never owned a home, but Dan added her name to his mobile home that sits on 70 acres.

“The way I look at life now, I have a wonderful husband, and wonderful home.

“My life is great right now and when I die, I will be with Danielle.”

“I like living in the country and taking care of my animals,” she said. Those include two dogs, chickens, roosters, three ducks and a goose.


After a financial settlement, Sam was able to build an addition to her home, including a section of a wall that displays pictures and art work of Danielle. She was also able to purchase a white Dodge Ram pickup truck that bears a painted self-portrait of Danielle on the back —  a painful reminder and a caution to any driver who pulls up behind her at a stop sign or traffic light. Other lettering on the truck refers to the BRAKES program, which stands for Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe.

“Neglectful driving will rob you of your children,” is painted on the top of the back door.

The truck art work is intended for everyone to open their eyes and see that “no matter what age you are, you are someone’s child,” she said.

“I’m just trying to make something good from something terrible,” she said.