The Harbor View Elementary School community remembers alumna Payton Chester and her mother, Sarah Chester, as having a similar “dance like nobody’s watching” sense of humor.
Former Harbor View principal Todd Schmidt said he felt compelled to post on Facebook about his memories of the Chester family after hearing the mother and daughter died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. He fondly remembers Payton carelessly dancing alone on stage in a snowman costume during her fourth-grade class’ holiday pageant routing.
Payton had an incredible ability to excel at everything she did while also successfully encouraging socially awkward peers to jump into the mix, said Schmidt, who is now principal at Weaver Elementary in Los Alamitos.
“She was a bright light for so many people,” Schmidt said. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years and I’ve rarely had a student who had that gift that Payton Chester had.”
Payton, 13, attended the Corona del Mar campus from preschool through fifth grade and was an eighth-grader at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, where her mother served on the Board of Trustees.
Sarah Chester, 45, was a sounding board for Schmidt as both a parent and former teacher.
“You knew you could count of Sarah for anything and she would do it well with a sense of style and humor that I always appreciated,” he said.
Chester often positioned herself in Schmidt’s line of sight during PTA meetings and try to get him to laugh, inserting levity into otherwise tense discussions.
“She was grown version of Payton,” Schmidt said.
One of Payton’s goals at her fourth-grade career day was to become a teacher. Harbor View fourth grade teacher Kristin Botta said at the time she hoped Payton would return to campus as her student teacher.
The 16-year Harbor View veteran teacher said she will never forget how Payton and her best friend both decided to dress up as her for Halloween. They wore matching dresses, blonde wigs, sunglasses, and even made photocopies of her district name badge.
“That was their costume, even for trick-or-treating,” she said. “That’s the biggest compliment in the world that a kid would say they want to be their fourth-grade teacher.”
Botta was also the fourth-grade teacher for Payton’s older twin brothers Hayden and Riley.
After hearing Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash, Botta texted Sarah Chester on Sunday to check-in but the message went unanswered. Botta felt physically ill after learning from the mother of Payton’s best friend, that her former student and “room mom” died in the same crash.
Sarah Chester volunteered in Botta’s classroom by planning class parties, decorating the classroom door, and keeping fellow parents informed on school happenings. When Botta was moved to a different classroom in the middle of the school year, Chester helped push furniture and used an X-ACTO knife to cut and place pink craft paper over “baby poop yellow” cabinets.
The Chesters also bought Botta the pink curtains that still hang in front of her classroom window four years later.
“When the pink glow would come through the curtains, I would always think of them,” she said.
Botta took Monday off from work because she didn’t want to cry during class. She returned to school on Tuesday, knowing an old photo of Payton is still stuck to her desk.
“I didn’t cry in front of the kids,” she said. “I just want to make sure they feel supported and they’re safe.”
Former students who are now in ninth grade waited until 3:05 p.m. to bring Botta flowers and a card.
Andy George, Sarah’s’ brother and Payton’s uncle, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that his family is heartbroken over their loss.
“She’s the one that everybody counted on,” George said. “She was there for everyone. She was everything to her family, to our family. Anytime I needed anything, she was the person I went to.”
Sarah and Payton Chester were traveling with Kobe and Gianna Bryant to the Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park when the helicopter crashed Sunday in Calabasas, killing all nine people on board, according to reports. Payton loved basketball and had played with Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Club team for some time, George said.
Sarah Chester is survived by her husband Chris and their two boys, Hayden and Riley, both 16, who also attend St. Margaret’s.
“Obviously, we were all devastated by this, everybody was punched in the gut hearing about Kobe and it spread so widespread into our community it was horrific how many people it affected,” said Karen Yelsey, a Newport-Mesa Unified trustee who represents an area that includes Corona del Mar.
Yelsey visited Harbor View Elementary earlier this week to offer her condolences and reassure teachers struggling with grief that the school district would provide counseling.
The school district announced Monday that it mobilized the Crisis Response Team of counselors, psychologists, social workers, and additional specialized staff to support grieving students and employees.
“Everyone was touched by these people and it’s heart-wrenching,” Yelsey said. “I feel so badly for the families, I feel so badly for their friends, especially the kids who are young as 13.”