The sixth-grade class at Sonora Elementary School looked on as parents and staff lowered the roots of the crepe myrtle tree into the ground Friday morning.
The tree will serve as a reminder of sixth-grader Samantha Nguyen, known by friends and teachers as Sammy, the girl with a bright smile and incredible personality.
The crepe myrtle was selected because it sends out flowers of pink or purple, two of Samantha's favorite colors, said Principal Christine Anderson.
Samantha, 11, died in September after being thrown from a personal watercraft on the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nev. She had been at the river with her father, Vince Nguyen, and a cousin.
A group of Nguyen's classmates and close friends from her Girl Scout troop wiped their eyes as they sprinkled pink and purple glitter on the dirt placed at the base of the tree.
"All the years I've spent at Sonora have been great because of Sammy," said sixth-grader Lexi Rae. "I hope Sammy is on a pink and purple cloud, staring down at us."
Just before the tree dedication, several teachers, parents and students spoke during a celebration-of-life observance in the school's multipurpose room, highlighting the girl's intelligence, sense of humor and enthusiasm for life.
Amy Lewis taught Samantha in kindergarten and first grade at Sonora. The audience laughed as she described some of the many notes Samantha had written to her.
"I could joke with her, and she would give me this look — some of you know that look that Samantha gave," Lewis said. "I was blessed and fortunate to have her for two years."
In addition to the tree, the school is also dedicating a bench to be placed outside the library and a bright-pink book shelf with the words "Sammy's Shelf" written on top for the library. The shelf, which will be filled with Samantha's favorite books, represents her passion for reading, Anderson said.
Samantha's family, sitting in chairs lining the perimeter of the multipurpose room, dabbed their eyes with tissues as her mother, Karen Nguyen, took the stage to speak.
The mother choked back tears as she thanked the room for the "overwhelming" support her family has felt since her daughter's death.
"Sammy was so smart, unique and precious," Karen Nguyen said. "Our little angel lit a fire in our hearts. It's amazing to see the impact my 11-year-old had on this community."
Vince Nguyen described his little girl as stubborn and talented, someone who dedicated much of her time to acting and piano lessons.
"She shared so much with everyone," he said. "Every moment with her was amazing."
Stacy Zachary, whose son attends Sonora, was in disbelief when she heard about Samantha's death.
"This doesn't even seem real," she said. "You knew from the first day you met her that she was going to do something amazing with her life, and she did."