The tragic death of New Hyde Park Memorial sophomore Leah Kuczinski, 16, has jolted not only her family and friends, but the community as well in a rippling effect of emotional grief that stretched throughout the country. Kuczinski died on Sunday, Feb. 25, during her winter break trip to Florida, in a go-karting accident from injuries that occurred on Feb. 22 at Palm Beach Karting at Palm Beach International Raceway.
“Leah always had a smile on her face,” said Katrina Rivers, a close friend and teammate from school. “She was really kind.”
She was best known for her love of cheerleading and field hockey.
“Our New Hyde Park Memorial High School community is mourning the tragic loss of one of its students, Leah Kuczinski,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ralph Ferrie. “On behalf of the entire Sewanhaka Central High School District community, we wish to extend our sincerest condolences to her family and friends as they mourn this inexplicable loss.”
Ferrie added that grief counselors and psychologists are available at the school for all students and staff who are in need of support during this difficult time.
Kuczinski is survived by her parents Peter and Maria and her siblings Alyssa and Brian.
“Leah was the sweetest young girl, full of life,” said Lauren Fretto, a friend of the family. “Her smile was so contagious and could light up a room.”
School officials reached out to families on Sunday to share the difficult news, preparing students for the vacation break return the next morning.
“The mood at school was unlike any feeling I’ve ever felt; you could sense the sadness in the air and the halls were unnaturally quiet,” said Joseph Santoruvo, a student at New Hyde Park Memorial. “People were crying on the floor and in each other’s arms; it was just sad.”
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, a candlelight vigil was held on the athletic field at New Hyde Park Memorial where hundreds of mourners gathered to remember their beloved Leah.
The morning before the vigil, New Hyde Park Spanish teacher Tiffany Salcedo tweeted on Twitter, “@HaileeSteinfeld Hi Hailee! We lost one of our students this weekend in a tragic accident. She loved you and your music and was supposed to go to your July concert. [heart] we would love for you to come to her vigil tomorrow at @NHPGladiators if possible!! We love you and our Leah.”
The message garnered hundreds of retweets and caught the attention of Steinfeld, a popular singer-actress. She confirmed her attendance at the Wednesday night vigil.
Before performing one of Leah’s favorite songs at the vigil, “Starving,” Steinfeld said, “You all had so many incredible things to say about her, I really would have loved to have met her, I know she was supposed to come to my show this summer. So, I wanted to come here and sing a song for her. Will you guys sing it with me?”
Thank you @HaileeSteinfeld for being such a class act and showing your support for my amazing student Leah! And being there for her best friends!! I know she’s smiling down on you! May God Bless you always!! @NhpAthletics @NHPGladiators @Newsday @News12LI pic.twitter.com/53XpKJC2Gf
— Tiffany Salcedo (@Srta_Salcedo) March 1, 2018
Hundreds of mourners turned out for funeral visitations for Kuczinski on March 1 and 2 at New Hyde Park Funeral Home.
“As a parent, it’s the unthinkable; makes you want to hold your kids just a little bit tighter,” said Teresa Santoruvo, a school parent. “But it was beautiful to see the students, faculty and district come together and console and help each other through this tragedy.”
And instead of celebrating Kuczinski’s Sweet 16 party, planned for Saturday, March 3, the family laid their daughter to her final rest following a funeral mass at Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in New Hyde Park.
“The wake and funeral were so emotional and heart-wrenching and people from all over the country stopped by to pay their respects,” one mourner told the Illustrated.
In just six days, a GoFundMe page that had been created in Leah’s memory amassed $95,066 of its $15,000 goal. Before the end of the weekend, the page had been marked as no longer taking donations.
Additionally, in lieu of funeral flowers, the family requested that donations be sent to: The Leah Kuczinski Legacy Foundation, 1980 Millers Place, Merrick, NY 11566.