It was supposed to be a fun, rewarding spring break trip for students from Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech campus, who were coming together to do Hurricane Katrina relief work in New Orleans.

But a few days before the group was scheduled to leave, a gunman opened fire at the Cummins Technical Center in Seymour, and Eli Edwards’ life was changed forever.

His father, Ward, 49, a manager at the plant, was shot and killed March 10 by an employee that Ward Edwards supervised, police said.

Initially, Eli felt he should stay at home with his mother and sister and mourn the loss of the father, husband and friend who was dearly loved by his family.

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After all, the 15year-old sophomore realized his father’s death made him the man of the house, and he had a responsibility to help lead his family through difficult situations.

“It all hit me, and I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” Edwards said.

But the trip to New Orleans was an experience Edwards had been anticipating since he was an eighth-grade student touring CSA-New Tech for the first time. The annual work trip was one of the major selling points that convinced Edwards to enroll in the project-based learning high school, he said.

Additionally, Ward Edwards had been hoping to accompany the school on its 2017 trip down south, his son said.

“He was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to go this year,” Eli Edwards said of his father.

Remembering his father’s heart for serving others helped Edwards make one of the most difficult decisions of his life — choosing to part from his family during their greatest time of need and make the trip to New Orleans.

With details of the shooting still coming out and the sting of loss still raw in his heart, Edwards boarded a bus with his friends and classmates and embarked on the 13-hour journey to help a group of people who had lost as much as he had.

“I needed to collect myself and get in a better state of mind, so I could come back and better help my family,” he said.

Time to think

On the drive south, Edwards said there was little to do but think, which gave him ample time to process the events that had changed his family forever and mourn the loss of the man he respected the most.“I spent two or three hours just staring out the window thinking about everything,” he said.

Edwards’ peers from CSA-New Tech were initially shocked to see their friend join them for the trip.

But even though his presence was surprising, Edwards’ friends said his decision to keep moving forward mirrors the attitude the sophomore carries with him throughout his life, regardless of his circumstances.

“I thought it was really brave,” said Sara Tower, a New Tech senior. “Eli’s always smiling. It was a very Eli response.”

It was hard to know what to say to Edwards during what he describes as the most difficult time of his life, his friends said. Rather than trying to offer words of comfort to help him through his grief, the students said they decided the best course of action was to encourage their friend, regardless of what he was feeling.

“We said, ‘You’re allowed to feel sad, and you’re allowed to feel happy, too,’” said Elisabeth Waddle, a senior.

There were times during the trip when Edwards did feel happy, he said. He enjoyed working side-by-side with his friends as they painted walls, installed wiring and completed other maintenance tasks on just a few of the thousands of homes that were destroyed by the 2005 storm.

Edwards had learned most of the construction and renovation techniques he used in his work in New Orleans from his father.

When the group wasn’t working, the students enjoyed taking in the sights of the famed city, including the French Quarter and a St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Even in the midst of sight-seeing, Edwards was able to honor his father during a trip to the National World War II Museum, which features an exhibit on the aircraft used during the war.

Like his father, Edwards wants to be an engineer, specifically an aeronautical engineer. He has a passion for all things aircraft, and he wowed his classmates with his knowledge of the inner workings of the various aircraft on display in the museum.

“He knows his stuff,” said Griffen Wheeler, a senior.

Dealing with feelings

But while his time in the south provided Edwards with a chance to laugh with his friends and honor the legacy of his father, it also forced him to deal with feelings of guilt — guilt for leaving his family, and guilt for having fun while his mother and sister were dealing with their own grief back home in Columbus.To help cope, Edwards would search out a Wi-Fi connection every night and check in with his family online to ensure that the burden of putting their life back together was not becoming too great. He was particularly worried about all of the legal paperwork his mother would have to handle in the wake of his father’s death.

Members of the extended Edwards family had flown in to help his mother and sister through their struggles, which gave the New Tech student some comfort in knowing that he had not left his immediate family completely alone.

“I have the best family ever,” he said.

But as the trip neared its end and the students prepared to return to Columbus, Edwards said he became anxious about facing life without his father for the first time. On their final night in New Orleans, the New Tech students never went to sleep but instead stayed up and talked for hours.

“I did most of the talking,” Edwards said.

The heart-to-heart discussions with his friends helped Edwards work through the emotions he had bottled up inside in the week since his father’s death and prepared him to return home to face the next chapter of his life.

Though his father will be physically absent from that chapter, he will still be with his son in spirit, Edwards said.

While he has many career aspirations, including a dream of enrolling in the Air Force Academy, Edwards said there will be one overarching goal for his life that he always will carry with him: becoming a man his father would be proud of.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.