La Verne community members gathered Wednesday night in Mainiero Square for a vigil to remember Sela Hem, known and well-loved as the Miss Donuts employee who died in a traffic accident Nov. 17.
White candles were passed out and later lit one by one, and a moment of silence was held at the end of the vigil. The podium was then opened for all community members to speak and share their memories of Hem.
Freshman psychology major Zoe Meshenberg said Hem was the first person she met when she came to La Verne for freshmen orientation. She was exploring the city and wandering into the donut shop when Hem was working.
“I’m from Chicago, and you don’t get the community feel there,” Meshenberg said. “It’s the first time I met someone who genuinely meant to smile.”
She heard about Hem’s death when she walked into Davenport Dining Hall and saw the donation collection basket.
“It’s really unfair that someone like that who was so sweet had to go so young,” Meshenberg said.
Kevin Yriarte, La Verne Police Department chaplain, led the vigil and began by sharing comments people left on Hem’s Facebook page.
“There was something very special about her that touched everyone around her, and that was her smile,” Yriarte said. “As I talked to people, they all said the same thing. Smile is the one and best word to describe who she was.”
Hem was born in Takeo, Cambodia, and moved to the United States in 2009 in hopes of becoming a nurse, Yriarte said.
In support of her ambitions, Hem worked three jobs in the area, including Miss Donuts and Bagels on the corner of D Street and Bonita Avenue, Granny’s Yogurt on the corner of D and Third Streets and a retirement home.
La Verne Mayor Don Kendrick also spoke.
Kendrick recalled how, when he went to order his favorite bagel sandwich only to discover it was taken off the menu, Hem made it for him anyway.
“If she would have lived, she would have been a nurse that I would have wanted to care for me because she cared more about me than I would have about me,” Kendrick said.
Although Hem’s immediate family is in Cambodia, she has cousins and aunts in the United States. Dara Chan, Hem’s second cousin, was present to speak on behalf of her relatives.
Chan said he was grateful for the community coming out and honoring his late cousin.
“Initially, it was a loss, but standing here before all of you, seeing all of the crowd here, I don’t think it’s a loss,” Chan said. “It’s actually a gain for the community. I hope that view that Sela had propagates throughout the entire community and continues to do so.”
Tony Sob, owner of Miss Donuts and Bagel, shared his first meeting with Hem and the advice he gave her about smiling and calling customers by their first names. He announced that the store alone raised about $8,300 and hopes the amount will reach five digits after they finish collecting donations.
Yriarte added that the La Verne community, including schools, residents and businesses, also raised money for Hem and her family. Together, they raised more than $20,000 to help cover the cost of the funeral and burial. The rest will be sent to her family in Cambodia.
Scott Mena, vice president of the La Verne Police Officers’ Association, and LVPOA started a GoFundMe to help raise funds for Hem’s family.
The fundraiser currently has 184 donors whose contributions raised $8,360 since Nov. 18.
“She was always extremely nice with us, and our morning guys would go over there to get their coffees,” Mena said. “She was always a great personality to be around.”
Representing LVPD, Chief of Police Scott Pickwith gave Chan and Hem’s aunt an envelope containing the money raised.
Debra Morales, director of advancement services at the University, also handed Chan an envelope on behalf of the University students, faculty and staff.
Hem is survived by her 16 year-old sister, Pisey Hem and her mother and father.
A memorial service will be held at Todd Memorial Chapel at 9 a.m. Saturday in Pomona.
Emily Lau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.