Perham students gather during assembly Friday to honor 16-year-old murder victim
PERHAM, Minn. - One by one, Perham high school students filed out of Friday morning's assembly honoring 16-year-old Tabitha Belmonte, pausing only to wipe away tears or to comfort grieving classmates.
Belmonte was killed Monday night when she was shot by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide near Amor.
On their way out of the assembly, students dropped dollar bills in a box decorated with photos of Belmonte and her 7-month-old daughter left behind, Emma Cox.
Students were inspired to create the box from a "pay it forward" essay Belmonte wrote just days before her death, in which she said she would give the dollar to her daughter as a lesson to always put others first.
"I have hopes Emma will go on to do something great," Belmonte wrote.
Belmonte was shot multiple times by her 17-year-old boyfriend and father of her child, Dylan Cox, before he turned the gun on himself, authorities say. The two lived together at his parents' home about 60 miles southeast of Fargo.
The school assembly, organized by Belmonte's friends, highlighted the glowing characteristics of their friend and classmate they lovingly refer to as "Tabby."
Photos of the teenage girl making goofy faces with friends flashed across a screen, accompanied by songs Belmonte was known to listen to.
As the lyrics to "I hope you dance" rang throughout the room, photos of Belmonte with fellow dance team members were shown, stirring emotion in students and faculty.
Friends approached the podium to share stories of laughter and memories created together.
"You know how to make someone smile just by being yourself," student Samantha Karnia said while reading a letter she wrote to Belmonte.
"Every time I look at the sun, I'll see you shining down on us," she said.
Brianna Bennett said she'd never forget the memories she shared with Belmonte - ones that included birthdays, swimming at the lake and partnering in speech.
Fighting back tears, Bennett shared a prayer with her classmates.
"God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference," she said.
Students praised Belmonte for the type of friend she was - one whom looked out for her pals with kindness and courage.
"You were always so strong and nice," said Catherine Kawlewksi, a close friend.
"Everything you did, you did with a passion," she added.
The lessons Belmonte left with students and staff were heard loud and clear, even by those who were considered mentors in the young woman's life.
Mental Health Professional Courtney Rooney reminisced times spent with Belmonte, which often included the student sharing her trials and celebrations.
While Rooney's job was to help and encourage Belmonte, she said now is the time to call on her former student for guidance.
"You need to be my guardian angel and help me," she said in a letter to Belmonte.
"I can't even put into words how much I love you," she added.
Another mentor in Belmonte's life, speech coach Sandra Wieser-Mathews, discussed how this tragedy can be used to highlight the underlying problem of domestic abuse.
An obituary for Belmonte said she had a fondness for animals and dreams of becoming a veterinarian.
Funeral services for the teen will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Calvary Lutheran Church. A prayer service will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at Schoeneberger Funeral Home in Perham.
Marczak writes for the East Otter Tail Focus, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.