When Sydney Williams and Sarah Hennings, eighth graders at St. Mary's School in Bryantown, Maryland, boarded school bus No. 140 after school on Nov. 27, they assumed it would be an average ride home. The students had just returned from Thanksgiving break the day before, and they were gearing up for the holiday season and preparing for the school’s annual Christmas Bazaar later that week. 

But, less than five minutes from the school, a drop off turned disastrous when Skyla Shirriel, a first grader from T.C. Martin Elementary School, the neighboring school with whom St. Mary’s students share the bus, exited the school bus and was struck by a vehicle. 

Witnessing this scene unfold and the terror of their younger schoolmates, Williams and Hennings jumped into action. 

“I didn’t see the actual collision, but a lot of little kids did,” Williams said. 

Williams and Hennings, along with the rest of the students on their bus and other buses following, watched as Shirriel’s father came out of their house and saw his daughter laying on the road. 

“In that position, I didn't really know what to do… it was so hectic,” Hennings said. “There was so much fear. It was awful.” 

Williams helped calm the children down by hugging them and moving them to the side of the bus away from the accident. She took out her phone and helped students contact their parents. 

“I’ve just always had a thing for little kids, I always want to help them,” she said. “I think my mom instinct was just to push everything down and help.” 

After emergency vehicles flooded the scene and a helicopter airlifted Shirriel to the hospital, Hennings reassured her schoolmates Shirriel would be all right. Though critically injured, Shirriel is reportedly recovering well and returned home in January.

But the students and community at St. Mary’s did not stop caring and supporting this previously-unknown student after that day. Since then, the school community has prayed daily for Shirriel’s recovery, offered Masses for her, written her letters, and sent a gift basket to the hospital. 

“Our children were praying every day at morning prayers, and we continue to do that to this day, because she still has a long road ahead of her,” St. Mary’s principal Sharon Caniglia said. 

The principal added, “We can’t fix things always by ourselves, we need God’s intervention. It was a true miracle that Skyla survived, and I attribute it to all the prayers that came out of everybody, not just at our school and our community, but in Charles County in general.”  

Williams noted, “Prayer has definitely helped ease my stress about it, and it… gives everyone a sense of hope that [Shirriel] is going to be fine.” 

The school also raised money for Shirriel by dressing in her favorite color – pink. 

“Typically we earn between $800 and $1,000 dollars when we do an out-of-uniform day,” Caniglia said. “We earned over $4,000 because people were just so moved by the tragedy that they wanted to do something and to help.” 

Williams and Hennings were both honored with the Saint Joan of Arc Certificate of Courage, presented by the Archdiocese of Washington Catholic Schools Office, Jan. 31 at a school assembly during Catholic Schools Week for their bravery and leadership during the crisis. They also received rosaries blessed by Pope Francis from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. 

At the assembly, William Ryan, the Archdiocese of Washington’s Superintendent of Schools, applauded the entire student body, but especially the two girls, for their living out the motto of this year’s Catholic Schools Week: “Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”

Caniglia sees the whole ordeal as the paragon of Catholic education in action: service directed by faith. 

“That’s part of what we teach them as Catholics,” she said, “that we need to give back to our community.”