ANDERSON — "Always had a smile on her face, no matter what. Loved her kids to death. Loved them."
Vickie Hatter is speaking about her 26-year-old daughter, Kiara McCullough. McCullough died on June 7. Anderson Police have ruled her death a homicide and are investigating.
"She was beautiful, inside and out," Hatter said. "She always wanted to help the next person. She was just wonderful."
McCullough's desire to help others led her to pursue a career in nursing. She went back to school at Excel Center in Anderson, a free charter school for adult learners operated by Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana.
"I think they're awesome. They're very caring, very supportive," Hatter said.
"Every day she came in and said 'I'm here for my kids. I'm here for my kids. This is why I'm doing this'," Miriam Henry, Goodwill education initiatives regional director for the Excel Center, said.
McCullough earned her diploma and her certified nursing assistant (CNA) certification, graduating cum laude, with honors.
"She had a rough life, and then she did a whole 360 and everything was great," Hatter said.
McCullough was such a successful and popular student that she was chosen to speak at graduation. But her dreams of graduation and nursing school were cut short.
"Our staff in school was devastated," Henry said. "Being able to come together as a staff and community to remember her and to honor her, and give her the accolades she definitely deserved as a model student for us, it's hard, but we lean on each other and we celebrate the memory of her, and I think she would want that."
Instead, five of McCullough's children accepted their mother's hard-earned diploma in the midst of a standing ovation.
"While she was with us, she was always smiling," Henry said. "I think that's really powerful to see such a strong mom who had a lot of stuff going on in life and in personal life, knowing what opportunities she didn't have, and being to overcome that is huge, and I'm super proud of her for that, and I want that to be the legacy that lives on."
"She wanted to set an example for her kids. And she did it," Hatter said.
McCullough's family is re-building their business in her honor. Key & K United Corp will be dedicated to helping children.