MURRAY — Three Murray State University pre-veterinary students have found a way to put recycling to use while honoring a fallen classmate.

When senior student Sarah Townsend died a few weeks ago, it meant the end of her dream to someday become a veterinarian. That was why Townsend came to Murray State from her hometown of Farmville, Virginia and, in her time with the pre-vet program, she came to know many of her fellow students.

They included Kylee Harden of Florence, Emmalee Storm of Lakewood, Illinois and Cheyenne Chaney of Murray, and in the wake of her death, they became determined to find a way to honor Townsend. And it not only involves the Murray State community but it has taken hold in the Murray-Calloway County community as well.

They are collecting plastic bottle caps that will be used to construct a commemorative bench in Townsend’s honor at Carman Pavilion, where pre-vet students undergo most of the work.

“Originally, I had made a post on the pre-vet tech Facebook page, asking if we could do something to memorialize Sarah at Carman since all of us pre-vet tech majors spend 95% of our time over there,” Chaney said of how this quest began a few days after word of Townsend’s death was learned on the campus.

Townsend is believed to have been the victim of a homicide. Her body was discovered on the morning of March 26 south near the Cherry Corner community southeast of Murray. An Almo man — Julius Sotomayor — faces charges in connection with her death, including murder.

“I figured this would be a good way for us to, like, plant a tree or something pretty over there in her memory. It was actually Kylee and Emmalee who came up with the idea for the bench.”

Both Storm, a junior, and Harden, a senior, have experience with projects involving plastic bottle caps being turned into benches. Storm said this activity has become a popular thing at her alma mater, Shelbyville High School, near the state capital of Springfield. 

“I think Kylee was actually the first person to comment about it after Cheyenne put it on the Facebook page and she suggested doing a plastic bottle cap bench because it’s unique and something you don’t see every day,” Storm said. “So I got on and said that this was something my high school had done. In fact, I was part of organizing it. I said that, if this something we wanted to go ahead and do for Sarah, then I’d be interested in doing it and help organize it. We actually have three or four at my high school now.”

Harden, who attended Dixie Heights High School in the Cincinnati, Ohio suburbs of Northern Kentucky, said she was also part of a bench project that honored a member of her senior class who died before graduation.

The three organizers say that they, along with the other pre-vet students, are still getting used to life without Townsend.

“I had a few classes with her and worked in a few labs and I found her to be a very sweet person,” Harden said. “She also would make jokes in class, but everybody would laugh. Oh my gosh! (Pre-vet professors Dr. Terry) Canerdy and (Dr.) Felicia Jones were among them. She made Felicia laugh so much.”

“Periodically, she would ask me how I was doing,” Chaney recalled. “She’d always want to go on random sprees to the lake. She’d always want to get out of town. She was a very happy, bubbly person. 

“Even if you didn’t know her that well, she still took you in and wanted to be your friend and make sure you were OK. She had a very mom-like mentality about her, wanting to take care of her friends.”

So, motivated for their pre-vet teammate, the campaign launched on April 3 during the monthly recyclables collection event Murray State hosts at its North Farm complex. Quickly, it became apparent that they were onto something.

And that has continued.

“When I got home from my lab class (Tuesday afternoon), I went to my car and got out a bunch of plastic bags and boxes full of bottle caps and weighed it all. Everything weighed 87 pounds,” Harden said of how this puts the cause very close to the minimum-size bench requirement. “The smallest size would be 4 feet and that takes 100 pounds of bottle caps. The next longest is 6 feet and we need 200 pounds for that, while the largest is 8 feet, which would need 250.”

The pre-vet club is expected to meet soon to discuss which size it wants to set as its goal. 

Meanwhile, this quest has also opened a new opportunity, particularly for  residents who utilize the City of Murray’s new curbside recycling program. As it was being introduced, Street and Sanitation Manager Ron Allbritten was advising participants that, while No. 1 and 2 plastic bottles were on the collectible items list, the bottle caps were not allowable.

Wednesday, Allbritten said he is pleased to now know there is an outlet for these items.

“Our recycler can’t take them because they have no outlet for them. However, that doesn’t mean somebody else can’t, so that’s great that maybe we have found another outlet,” Allbritten said, urging city residents to help the Townsend memorial cause. “We have our residents remove the bottle caps for our recycling anyway, so now they can take those over to Murray State and get rid of them that way instead of having them go to the landfill. Absolutely, I’m supportive of that.”

Along with the Murray State recyclables collection the first Saturday of each month at the North Farm along North 16th Street, anyone wishing to contribute to this cause also has other options. There are collection stations available at the Winslow Dining Hall that accompanies the main area of residential colleges on the campus north of Chestnut Street, as well as the library of the Carman Pavilion that is adjacent to the Cherry Expo Center along College Farm Road across from the Calloway County High School campus.