DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Socially distanced mourners gathered Saturday outside Durham's Creekside Elementary School for a drive through memorial service.
Those approaching the campus received white balloons that soared into the heavens minutes later, a gesture that honored the life of Aurea "Yoshi" Soto Morales. She's the first North Carolina child whose death in June is linked to COVID-19.
"Yoshi was a bright, vibrant, happy second-grade student," said Creekside principal Victoria Creamer.
She had just turned eight-years-old when COVID-19 complications took her life. Mourners wept during prayers for the popular student, then applauded the people who took time to drive on campus with words of comfort for the grieving family.
Durham Public Schools ESL liaison and interpreter Madeline Felekos translated for parents Salvador and Araceli Soto Morales: "Dad just says that we're all God's children and there should be no differences between us. And the loss of the life of his daughter at this time is very meaningful to him. She wants to thank everyone present here, supporting her, giving her strength. She mostly wants to thank all the Creekside staff, teachers, who have gathered here today to see Yoshi get sent off to peace in her memory."
The family, now recovered from COVID-19, gathered around a memorial tree recently planted on campus in Yoshi's name.
"It should grow fairly big fairly quickly," the principal said. "When the tree blooms next year, it'll be filled with beautiful white flowers in honor of Yoshi."
"Yes," said Yoshi's sister Jennifer. "That tree symbolizes growth, over time. We just planted a butterfly (bush). Hopefully, eventually, when kids pass by here, see the flowers growing out of it and hopefully seeing it grow, it's like Yoshi was here, seeing her classmates every day."
Some of those classmates wrote heartfelt messages on ribbons that are tied now to the memorial tree.
"This one says 'Yoshi was a best friend and i loved her.' Another one that I tied earlier said that her friend was really going to miss playing on the playground with her. Another one says I feel blessed to have known you," said Creamer.
Organizers of the memorial hope Yoshi's family and friends can find some comfort in the memorial, but her mother told ABC11 she hopes no other mothers have to experience what she's endured.