METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - A Destrehan couple could write a book on survival. Twelve years ago this month, Allen and Sandra Washington lost their entire future in a tragic accident. What they've done to fill the more than 4,400 days that have followed is nothing short of remarkable
Allen works hard at Luling Elementary as a custodian. Making floors at the school sparkle is part of his job, but his joy is watching children shine.
"I have three dreams," one child says to Allen in the hall. "I want to be a fashion designer, a veterinarian, or do art."
He's a counselor in the hallways, encouraging children to reach for the stars more than a decade after his world went dark.
"'Love' represents Rachel. Rachel was like the mother hen," said Allen's wife, Sandra. She points to four words on the wall of their home that represent the children they lost.
"'Learn' was Samantha. She was the studious one," Sandra said.
She called her son, Allen Jr., talented - always a comedian. He represents "laugh" on the wall.
Her baby girl, Alandra, didn't want to be like anyone else. She is the word "live."
The night of Feb. 2, 2003, the Washington children were coming home from church. Somehow, the car Rachel was driving ended up in the canal along Airline Highway. The four children died in 30 feet of murky water.
"When I went round Airline and made that turn, the fire truck was there and I say, 'man I sure hope nobody not down in there,'" Allen said.
But Sandra said when she saw the State Trooper give Allen the nod and the car was confirmed she couldn't believe what was happening. The parents of four were childless in an instant.
"We got home and got down on our knees and prayed," Allen said. "People said 'how can you pray at this time?' We had to pray."
Sandra said God kept her mind. "It wasn't medication, it wasn't counseling. I thank God for support from people, but God kept my mind," she said.
Rooted in their faith, the Washingtons hold their own bible study every morning. Along the way, they learned there was still work for them to do for other children and themselves.
Sandra is Program Coordinator for the Youth Empowerment Project of St. Charles. The non-profit agency focuses on guiding children toward success. Sandra mentors young women and men, provides support for them and helps them refocus.
"We laugh at Ms. Sandra, saying 'you think you're everybody's mom.' But she does because it's part of what makes her so exemplary."
But it took more than mothering skills to become qualified for the position.
"It took me six years to get an associate degree, took four years to get my bachelor's degree, and three years to get my masters. Thirteen years," she said.
After she lost her children, Sandra never stopped striving to make them proud. She graduated with her masters in social work from Southern University.
"When Miss Sandra was an intern with us around the holidays, holidays are hard," said Melissa Sawyer. "She had a number of gift cards, one from each of her children that she wanted us to give to other kids to make them have a happy holiday."
"Do you know what I'd give to have a child to hug right now? God has blessed me with children, but I'm talking about those children," she said pointing to her children's pictures on the wall.
Allen says he can still hear the voice of his baby girl.
"That night when that thing went in that water, in my mind she was calling for me and I couldn't help her. That there is rough, you know? Let me get off that one. I'm going to leave that alone," he said.
They had their faith, but Allen needed another focus to get through the pain. In 2008, he began to work on his associate degree in criminal justice.
"It kept me busy in my mind. It helped me move through without thinking too much," he said.
He went to school part time for six years and earned his diploma. But being around the children at Luling Elementary is food for his soul.
"They need somebody to help, guide them through and show them another avenue other than what they're doing," he said.
"He's a constant presence in the hallways. The children know him and respect him,"said Luling Elementary Principal Vanessa Terry.
Melissa Sawyer said there are folks like Mr. and Mrs. Washington who have decided to throw their love and heart and soul into trying to lift up other children..
Through the years, the Washington's worked to raise money for scholarships for deserving students in their children's names. They also lead support groups for other grieving parents. But the pain of of 12 years ago seems fresh every time they pass the bright crosses on Airline Highway.
"When I'm going to work, I may have to pass that spot and tears will fall," Allen Washington said.
The couple led the fight for 5.5 miles of guardrail along Airline to help prevent other cars from plunging into the canal. The work was completed in February 2010.
"A lot of political backing to get that done, and there's only been like a couple of accidents - just one loss of life," Sandra said.
Her children didn't have a chance to grow up, but now she lends a hand to make growing up easier for others. Ebony Wright's daughter is in the youth empowerment program.
"She's just fantastic a big help and a lot of effort she puts in with the kids. I see a big difference in a lot of ways," she said.
Allen says you have to be fortified from the inside because life is not always fair. The Washingtons go on year after year, day after day, together. They're reminded of the love they lost, but strengthened in the goodness in life they've found.
"They'd be proud of us," Allen said. "They were our biggest supporters, they were they really were. I'll see them again one day."