On November 18, 2009, I received a call from my sister-in-law, Karen, her voice fraught with worry and confusion: “Kirsten never showed up to her second grade classroom today. The principal just called to tell us she’s missing. Please pray they find her and that she’s OK.”
I knew at that moment that something terrible must have happened to our Kirsten, who was serving as a student missionary on the North Pacific island of Yap, because she would never just not show up to her classroom.
“Of course! We’ll pray right now,” I responded. “Maybe she got injured on her morning run. Maybe she’s at a hospital.” I turned to my husband and told him that his sister had just called to tell us Kirsten was missing. We knelt right there and prayed.
My oldest daughter, Kamila, who was only eight years old, said, “Don’t worry Mom; let’s pray for her safe return.” About four long hours later, I received the call that changed our lives forever: “They have found her body.”
I remember how confused and sad Kamila and her siblings were when I eventually told them that someone had hurt and killed Kirsten. Had their faithful little prayers gone unanswered? “But Mom, where were Kirsten’s guardian angels?” they asked. “Why didn’t they keep her safe?”
About two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, Kirsten’s body arrived from overseas. The family gathered at the home of my in-laws, Dr. Niels and Mrs. Tove Oster, her maternal grandparents, as we had done many times before. This time, however, we weren’t feeling very thankful or joyful as in past years. Instead, we sat quietly while we waited for Kirsten’s casket to arrive from the tiny island of Yap.
At the funeral home, her parents, Hollis and Karen, allowed the closest relatives to see Kirsten. I never expected Kirsten to return to us in a coffin, and I had no idea what to expect when they opened it. It seemed incredibly surreal beholding her lifeless body—only 20 years old. She would remain 20 years old in our minds forever. She would have turned 21 the first week of December. Yet, at the same time, she looked absolutely beautiful and peaceful.
I was relieved that she did not appear battered or bruised. Her long, curly brown hair was lovely, and her face looked flawless, yet when my eyes gazed down at her hands, I could see how defense wounds were carefully disguised with makeup and hand positioning. I also noticed a pretty purple scarf draped around her neck, and at once, the horror of what this precious child endured during her last moments on earth became an overwhelming and heartrending reality.
Kirsten wasn’t just a student missionary. She was a teacher to 10 second graders who loved her, a sister to two older brothers, the only daughter of the Wolcotts, the first granddaughter of the Osters, a cousin to more than 12, and a niece. And she was my niece.
Deep Desire to Serve
At Southern Adventist University, where she studied education, Kirsten dreamed of becoming a teacher, just like her mother, Karen. I, too, shared the love of teaching with Kirsten, and we connected through her desire to learn more about the profession. She had shadowed my classroom when she was a student at Richmond Academy and I was teaching at a large public high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. I remember her looking hesitant when I asked her to walk to the photocopy room to make some copies for me while some 2,000 students flooded the halls on their way to their next classes, but she did it anyway.
In 2011, I was recruited to teach at Richmond Academy, an Adventist school where the total enrollment, kindergarten through grade 12, was some 120 students. It became clear why Kirsten must have felt a little out of place when she visited me at the large public school. Richmond Academy was a quaint school where everyone was like family. One day, as I sat at my teacher’s desk, I pulled out a wooden ruler. Scribbled in pencil was the owner’s name, “Kirsten Wolcott.” On the other side, it said, “Kirsten loves Reed,” a high school crush, no doubt. It’s a keepsake that makes me smile and tear up at the same time.
Ever since Kirsten was a little girl, she dreamed of being a missionary. During her sophomore year of college, she decided to take a year off from her studies to serve as a volunteer. The following are some of the words she wrote on her application form: “I love the feeling that comes with service, it’s such a rewarding experience. I want to challenge my walk with God by pushing myself to do something more than what I have done before. I really feel like God has called me to serve Him and I believe this will be a huge growth experience for me. I want to be able to share Him with kids and adults and have them learn practical skills as well. My goal is to be the teacher who inspires them academically, pushes them spiritually and comforts them emotionally.”
When her dream of serving on the island of Yap finally became a reality, Kirsten couldn’t wait to go. She was so excited when she learned that she would be assigned to teach the littler ones at the Yap Adventist School from August 2009 to June 2010.
At the airport, her parents, Karen and Hollis, said their farewells. As she walked away, she moved onward confidently to her final destination. Her parents remember that she never did glance back, not even once. In her journal, she wrote, “I keep thinking how this isn’t just a vacation. I’m going to be educating young kids and I don’t even have an education yet. But God, you’ve kept me calm and You’ve brought me this far. . . . God, use me and give me extra patience, faith, hope, courage, and boldness to spread your gospel. Prepare the hearts of those I’m coming to serve. Shine out of me and let my example show these kids and adults how amazing You really are!”
I emailed Kirsten some tips and ideas for her classroom and promised to send her a box of materials for her students for Christmas. I never did get around to sending her the package.
As was her custom, early in the morning, Kirsten would spend time with God. She journaled her thoughts and conversations with God in her diary. She also loved to exercise. Despite being such a positive influence on many others, she, like many of our youth, struggled with body image issues, undereating and overexercising at times. When she first arrived in Yap, she and another student missionary purchased bikes and requested to ride off campus. The principal granted her permission, but only after he warned her that missionaries had been victims of serious crimes on the island of Yap.
Principal Fonseka also requested written approval from Kirsten’s parents. Karen and Hollis reluctantly agreed. They communicated their preference for her to remain on campus and “get creative” with her exercise routines, such as adding a jumping rope.
About two weeks before, Karen had been at my house for the birthday of my daughter, Kamila. Kamila enjoyed hearing her aunt Karen talk about Kirsten’s second grade students since she was also in second grade. We were talking about emails I had exchanged with Kirsten and the materials I was planning to send her. At one point, Karen brought up how Kirsten used to run with a roommate but that lately she was running by herself in the early morning hours. Because it was still dark, she carried a flashlight. I could see the concern on Karen’s face. “It worries me that she’s running in the dark with a flashlight,” I said. “Someone could watch her, learn her routine, and target her.”
“I know,” Karen responded. “But Hollis and I can’t really keep her from running. She’s an adult, and she’s thousands of miles away . . .”
But I could see how this really bothered Karen. It bothered both of us. But we left it in God’s care.
The true story of the student missionary who gave her all by Rainey H. Park with Andy Nash.
Three ways to order:
1. Adventist Book Center
The day before the attack, Kirsten began her day as she always did, speaking to God and asking Him to protect her and to keep her safe on her morning run as He had done countless times before. I pondered on the words she wrote in her journal. It broke my heart knowing that she only had 24 hours left on this earth: “God I’m really excited about today, I feel in love with life this morning. Come fill up my heart with your love and help me to be able to brighten someone’s day today. Use me for your service. God, please help me now as I read Your words. I want to be spiritually filled. Send your Holy Spirit to come and speak to my mind as I read and study. Then please help me to have the energy and be safe when I am on my run this morning.”
As I read and reread her journal entries, there is no doubt in my mind that Kristen loved the Lord. That she wanted to be filled with His Spirit daily, and her desire was to serve Him. She loved her students, and her students loved her. She was kind and thoughtful and always had a warm smile on her face. One of her friends at Southern Adventist University described her as a light. When others were feeling down or overwhelmed with schoolwork, she would encourage them and offer to help.
The day of the attack was a rainy day. Kirsten was disappointed about the weather, but she didn’t let it keep her from running. A local, who was high and drunk and had just left a party, observed her light. He knocked her over from behind with his bike, eventually overpowering her, as he was twice her size. Kirsten fought as hard as she could but lost the fight for her life. He stabbed her to death.
I often think about Kirsten’s last minutes on earth. It caused nightmares in which I would dream that I was being stabbed, and I would wake up in a panic. Her mother asked me at the funeral whether I thought Kirsten felt a lot of pain during the attack. Clearly, those thoughts tormented all of us. No one truly knows what she went through, but I prefer to think that she was as connected to her Maker as was Stephen in the Bible, his eyes and thoughts on God while he was being stoned.
This video, produced by the North American Division Communication department, shares the story of Karen Wolcott’s visit to the island of Yap as she searched for closure following the tragic loss of her daughter Kirsten, a student missionary who was murdered in 2009. To watch, visit vimeo.com/369979533.
The enemy tried to snuff out Kirsten’s light when he cut her life short. But he failed, and the opposite happened. One would think that after a horrific tragedy like that befell one of our student missionaries, parents and students alike would be too fearful to engage in mission. But after Kirsten’s death, students continued to volunteer to serve in Yap and around the world. Inspired by her story and love for mission, they said they “wanted to carry the torch, to complete the work she had begun.” The light would continue!
Ten years later, I struck up a conversation with Lindsay Dever, a young woman who works with me at Spencerville Adventist Academy. During our conversation, I discovered that she had known Kirsten. They had met at a camp meeting in Virginia when they were kids. She shared a couple of fun memories with me, one of them a little mischievous, and I loved hearing all about it. She related how she and Kirsten would climb the rafters that led into the different cabins. She also shared with me how Kirsten changed the trajectory of her life. After Kirsten’s death, she took a year off to serve in the mission field as a task force dean. She is now working at Spencerville Adventist Academy and teaching like Kirsten would have.
On the 10th anniversary of Kirsten’s death, Karen and Hollis, their two sons, Nathan and Scott, and her family and friends gathered in Kirsten’s hometown of Tappahannock, Virginia, to commemorate her love of mission work. Together, we packaged 27 boxes filled with various supplies for the student missionaries at Yap. They collected and donated food, health and beauty aids, and school supplies to support the education of Yapese students. I was finally able to send those promised school supplies.
In addition, Kirsten’s family was invited to the headquarters of the North American Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbia, Maryland, for a showing of a special documentary called Discovering Kirsten. The documentary chronicles Karen’s journey to Yap after Kirsten’s premature death.
This June, the 2020 graduating class of Yap Adventist Academy will be the students who were in Kirsten’s second grade class. Karen, who spoke at their eighth-grade graduation and has built a relationship with many of these students, desires to be present for their senior graduation.
Every year on the anniversary of Kristen’s death, the island of Yap observes the Kirsten Wolcott Memorial Day, a sort of “holiday” to remember her service on the island and the senseless loss of her life. It is a day when the Yapese promote their strong opposition to the use of drugs and alcohol and to domestic violence against women.
My hope is that instead of remembering Kirsten as the student missionary who was murdered in the South Pacific, people will remember that she was a beautiful, vibrant young woman who was passionate about her convictions to share the love of Jesus with others. She loved her family, her friends, and her job as a teacher of second graders. Although she had her struggles and insecurities, she shared her thoughts with God every day. In one of her journal entries, just two months before her life was cut short, Kirsten, in her own words, resounds her legacy.
“As I study (Ecclesiastes 3: 1–8) I wondered why there are both bad and good things? Why should there be a time for death? But as I read the commentary I realized that it was to illustrate that nothing lasts forever . . . we never know when our ‘time’ is, and so we should take every advantage of the good times we have and work hard to get through the bad times with the help of Jesus Christ because He wants to help us. . . . Think about it: Someone dies every second. Do you think many of them expected to die? I want my heart to be prepared for death. I want my life to be lived so that there is something good to say about me when I’m gone, and hopefully my death can lead others to eternal life! Come fill my heart today with YOUR thoughts, words and actions so that I can be a ‘silent’ witness with my actions. God, help me to live each moment like it was my last so that I will be ready when my time actually comes. Love ya, Amen.”
I find comfort knowing in my heart that Kirsten rests for now; however, that moment when the trumpet resounds, she will rise and be caught up with Jesus in the heavens, where all the mysteries of this world will be revealed. Though her existence was brief on this world, Kirsten accomplished her mission. She inspired many to carry the torch and share the light of Jesus in a dark world in need of a Savior. One day in heaven, we’ll know just how many people got to know Jesus and accepted Him as their Lord and Savior because of the impact Kirsten had on their lives.
Would you like to help make a positive impact in the lives of others? If so, please consider being a volunteer missionary through Adventist Volunteer Service which facilitates church members’ volunteer missionary service around the world. Volunteers ages 18 to 80 may serve as pastors, teachers, medical professionals, computer technicians, orphanage workers, farmers, and more. To learn more, visit AdventistVolunteers.org.