Just a week ago, Lakota West junior Ezekiel “Zeke” Stepaniak experienced a typical day.
He met his closest friends in Jason French’s classroom before the school day began – laughing, joking and vociferously talking.
Later, in Michelle Day’s English class, he dozed off and was awakened by Day spraying him with a water bottle, the class erupting with laughter.
Then it was off to boost the spirits of his fellow co-workers at McDonalds – where he made days working at a fast food restaurant fun, rather than a chore.
The end of the day was spent hanging out with friends and family.
And on it went – sleep, wake up then repeat.
But, last Friday night, things changed.
Stepaniak’s life was unexpectedly taken after he wrecked his car where West Chester and Liberty Township meet at the intersection of Hamilton-Mason Road and Ohio 747. Four other Lakota teens, including Lakota West sophomore Ashley Stacy, were in the car. After suffering serious injuries, Stacy was taken to Miami Valley Hospital.
The news spread throughout Saturday once Zeke was pronounced dead by the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office.
Zeke’s friends, juniors Zac Payne, Steven Miner and Jonathan Jung, were among the first people building a memorial at the crash site, which is located along the fence of Heritage Elementary School.
“It didn’t feel real at all,” Payne said of setting up the memorial.
“We all gathered around and it was just silent for the longest time. You hugged everybody you saw. People you hadn’t talked to in years were coming up to you to make sure that we were all right.”
It was Zeke, who helped Payne feel welcome after his family moved from Indianapolis when he was in the fifth grade. Zeke, who lived five houses down, invited the “new kid” to trick-or-treat with him. They remained close friends since.
“I keep telling everyone that it could have been anyone,” Payne said. “If you want to end on bad terms with somebody, no matter how long it’s been or what the cause was, always know that it could be worse. We just realized how much we took for granted.”
On Sunday afternoon, Lakota West opened its doors and allowed students to speak to grief counselors. One student, junior Morgan Stacy, was especially upset.
Her younger sister Ashley still had not woken up. Ashley had no idea that she was in the hospital, that Zeke had passed away or that her older sister was back home – worried.
“She is someone I have seen as a leader,” Lakota West guidance counselor Drews Mitchell said of Morgan. “She came in on Sunday and was very raw in her emotions, obviously, but at the same time saying thanks to everyone for coming together.”
The following day, the first one back at school on Monday, was extremely tough.
“I really didn’t want to wake up,” Steven Miner said. “Our whole group met in the community room that morning with the grief counselor and I didn’t think that day was ever going to end. It just kept going on and on. I actually only made it through two classes, but it just seemed like hours and hours.”
That morning in French’s classroom, the typical loud talking and laughter was subdued to tears and silence. In Day’s English class, only an empty seat remained in the place of her class’ most entertaining student.
“It is a presence that we will all miss in that class,” Day said. “It was kind of the running joke in our class, ‘how quickly is Zeke going to pass out from Ms. Day’s talking?’
“I told (Lakota West principal Richard) Mr. Hamilton on Sunday, the hardest thing for me will be going to school and seeing that empty desk. And that was the most challenging thing for me and watching these guys (Zeke’s friends) – knowing how it is going to affect their lives.”
Despite the grieving, something amazing happened at the high school this week.
Students decorated their cars and lockers with “RIP ZEKE.” They passed notes through Zeke’s locker, telling him how much they missed him. They made bracelets, hung up posters and designed t-shirts in honor of Zeke and Ashley.
Coordinating through Facebook, students also honored Zeke by gathering for a picture where they donned his favorite colors – yellow and green. The next day, on Tuesday, students did the same for Ashley and wore her favorite color – blue. Both pictures had nearly 1,500 students in them, standing in the Main Street hallway at the high school.
The day after that, on Wednesday, the Lakota West community received word that Ashley was awake, had gone through surgery and that her family was encouraged by her progress.
“Everyone has just been there for everybody,” Payne said. “We all now have the mentality that we need to keep it this way. It can’t be just a one-week thing. This is going to change our lives for the rest of high school and forever.”
While the school community grieved, another group that was hurting after the wreck was the staff at the McDonalds off Union Centre Boulevard – located just a few hundred yards from the high school.
At McDonalds, there are no signs for customers to see that Zeke ever worked there. However, he was there constantly and put his co-workers in good spirits.
“He made this place not feel like work,” McDonalds assistant manager Amy Sargent said. “He made it feel like we were hanging out and making the occasional sandwich. He just lit up the room, the second he walked in.
“It has been really hard … I look at the schedules and he is still all over them, he is still in the computer system – just seeing his name there … it has just been very emotional.”
Like the high school, workers at the McDonalds have been sticking together. And this Saturday, during his visitation, staff members from other McDonalds locations will be filling in so they can pay their respects.
Zeke’s visitation will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday at the Princeton Pike Church of God, 6101 Princeton-Glendale Road (747) in Hamilton. In memory of Zeke, memorials may be directed to www.rmhcincinnati.org/donate-online.aspx (Ronald McDonald House).
Ezekial Stepaniak leaves parents Isaac and Detra Stepaniak and siblings Elijah, Evie, Eden Enoch and Eliana, as well as grandparents Patrick and Debbie Stepaniak and Dearl Shepherd and Debbie Mossbarger.