“I know it’s not a lot, but I want to help the children.”
Cara McCollum was 8 years old when she gave a quarter to her Methodist Church in her hometown of Forrest City, Arkansas.
The child was prepared to give whatever it was she had to children less fortunate than herself. She seemed to have been born with a drive to make change for the better.
But that mission was cut short one year ago Wednesday, when McCollum, then 24, died of injuries suffered in a crash on a highway in Salem County.
On the anniversary of her death Wednesday, Cara’s parents remember her as the caring, ambitious and humorous light of their lives.
“She always thought she could be doing more,” said her mother, Maureen McCollum.
By age 10, Cara had started a miniature business with neighborhood friends that consisted of selling dog biscuits to raise funds for their local humane society. They called their club “P.A.L.S.” — Pets and Animal Lovers Society. The tiny crew even went to City Council with their concerns.
Cara thrived through adolescence and continued to look for ways to give herself a platform to make a positive impact on those around her. She excelled in school and made her way to New Jersey to study at Princeton University, where she graduated in 2015.
In 2013, Cara found a new way to be heard. She won the title of Miss Island Resort, which led to the Miss New Jersey competition. The Miss New Jersey organization remembers Cara having an “it” factor that gave her an edge among her competition, winning her the title of Miss New Jersey 2014. Her platform was “giving the gift of reading.”
“That’s why she got involved in doing a pageant. She thought that would be a way for people to listen,” Maureen McCollum said. “Until the end, she was thinking of how she could make a difference.”
With her title of Miss New Jersey, she did just that. Cara used her platform to continue a project that gave books to children on their birthday.
After the Miss America Competition, Cara turned her attention to her professional life. In 2015, she accepted a position as a lead anchor at SNJ Today, a Millville-based broadcast company that was starting a newscast in the wake of the closing of NBC affiliate WMGM-TV 40.
With her focus now on her career, Cara was becoming a well-known personality.
But Feb. 15, 2016, was a particularly brutal winter night with treacherous driving conditions.
That night, Cara had cautioned others to drive safely when she left the studio.
On her way home, her car spun off Route 55 in Pittsgrove Township, Salem County, striking a tree. Cara suffered head injuries in the crash. She died a week later, surrounded by family, at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
Even in death, Cara gave one last gift to others: She was an organ donor.
A former Miss New Jersey was killed in a crash on Route 55 this year. So was a prison inmate…
As Miss New Jersey, Cara had touted a book program that gave children books on their birthday. Now, her family and friends keep Cara’s memory alive by growing that initiative in Arkansas and South Jersey.
Rick and Maureen McCollum said the book initiative started with giving 2,500 books in Arkansas and increased to 9,000 last year.
The McCollums said they have a saying in their family: “Bloom where you are planted.”
Though Cara felt at times her small town wasn’t quite big enough to hold all of her ambition, her mother said, she supplemented her time in Arkansas by fitting in as much as possible: summers studying all across the United States, dance, voice, drama and piano classes and horseback riding.
“She wanted to experience everything,” Maureen said. “She told me about maybe getting involved in politics. She needed to make changes for the better.”
Now Cara lives on through her brother, Derick, Maureen said.
“Cara was quite sassy — the spark and spunk of our family,” she said. “She and her brother were a lot alike, yet different. Both very smart, talented and competitive. She was English, he was math. He played classical music, she played jazz.”
Rick and Maureen said certain things will always remind them of their daughter: daffodils, daisies, the songs she sang or played on the piano. Maureen wears a heart necklace with her signature, including “xoxo” — the way Cara signed most things to her family.
Mike Frankel, of SNJ today, said at her memorial service that “you will see Cara wherever you go. Her light will be so bright it will be blinding.”
“Her light is still shining,” Maureen said.
Cara will be remembered by friends as the perfect storm of glamour, poise, humor and sass.
“It’s really still hard to believe that she’s not here,” said Lindsey Giannini, Miss New Jersey 2015. “There are so many times something funny will happen and I want to text her. We shared this really incredible experience in being Miss New Jersey, and I miss having that with her. It still feels really fresh.”
When asked what Cara would say to her family, hometown and South Jersey if she were here today, Rick and Maureen said their daughter would urge others to follow their dreams.
Maureen said they were comforted by the words of the priest who prayed with them as Cara passed. He was a friend of Cara’s boyfriend, NBC 10’s Keith Jones, and left the family with a phrase they still hold onto.
“‘It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years’ — and Cara lived life,” Maureen said.
“Cara was a gift,” her mother said, “and although we miss her terribly, we were truly blessed to have her the short time we did.”