CHARLESTON, W.Va. - When she was 14, Kendyl Ryan watched her father drown.
The accident left Kendyl and her two younger sisters without a dad, their stay-at-home mom without a husband and the family without an immediate source of income.
It did not leave the Boone County teen hopeless.
"I feel like I'm mentally strong," said Kendyl, now 16. "We talked about him freely, with my mom and sisters. . .It wasn't 'hush-hush, don't talk about it.' "
She isn't sure how the family was able to overcome the tragedy, but she knows talking about her father helped. Now the Scott High School junior wants to give students suffering similar losses the chance to share their feelings with a fellow survivor.
"I just want kids to know it's OK to talk about it," she said. "It's natural."
Kendyl is working with a local elementary school counselor to provide a support group for children who have lost a loved one. She said she ran with the idea after talking with a friend whose father and stepfather had died, but the inspiration comes from her own experiences.
Her father, Chris, was a coal miner, and the family moved frequently as he relocated for his work. At her new schools, Kendyl said there would be "new kid groups," where students would get to know one another and talk about adjusting to a new place.
Kendyl said after her father's death she went through the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - but isn't sure other children always make the same successful transition.
"I just see kids who are angry over it," she said. "I don't blame them for being angry; it's natural. . .It's why I want to help kids."
Kendyl's grandmother, Christa Ryan, was skeptical of Kendyl's idea when she first heard the details. Because of recent family problems, Kendyl and her sisters have lived with their grandmother since April.
But she remembered how Kendyl found the strength to speak at her father's service, and she has faith Kendyl can show similar poise in working with children.
"Sometimes I don't know where she gets all her determination," Ryan said. "She just has it in her."
Ryan has seen Kendyl channel that drive into her family, schoolwork and extracurricular activities. In addition to serving as a mentor to her younger sisters, Kendyl has a part-time job and participates in cheerleading and a slew of other activities, such as a state program aimed at giving students more information about college.
Her involvement in GEAR UP - Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs - increased when she entered high school, about the same time her father died. Throwing herself into this and other activities helped distract Kendyl from her problems, her grandmother said.