For 28 years, the four women who met in college remained the best of friends, watching each other’s families grow and renewing their bond through travel together. This year, Sharonda Singleton – one of nine killed in a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina – looked forward to bringing along her daughter on the girls’ trip to Florida next month.
“We wanted to show our daughters what true African-American women are doing what life could be like and the meaning of true friendship,” a member of that group, Rita Whidbee, tells PEOPLE. “We were so excited planning our trip. We were trying to figure out what we were going to wear for our legacy photo shoot.”
“It makes it difficult to see that a piece of the puzzle is missing.”
Singleton, 45 – who also went by Coleman-Singleton, incorporating her maiden name – was on the ministerial staff at the historic African American Emanuel AME Church, where a white man, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, is accused of opening fire after shouting a racist screed during a prayer meeting on Wednesday night.
She also was a longtime educator, most recently as a speech pathologist and coach of the girls track team at Goose Creek High School, whose Principal Jimmy Huskey said, “She cared about her students and was an advocate for them, always willing to listen and talk with them. She was always there with a smile.”
To her longtime friends from their shared beginnings at South Carolina State University, she was an anchor and a rock, someone they knew would be there whenever they needed, and whom they could support in return.
“I’m in utter shock,” another member of the group, Kennetha Wright Manning, 45, tells PEOPLE. “How can such a positive person be gone all of a sudden? It doesn t make sense.”
Says Whidbee, 46: “All I had to say was ‘I need you,’ and she would be there in a second. It was that kind of friendship. We were best friends, yes, but we were sisters too. She’s always been fearless. She had a fierce spirituality that owned her.”
She adds: “When we first came out of college, she lived with me and my husband. Every Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. she would knock on our door and climb in between us and say, ‘What are we doing today?’ But that’s just who she was. She was so fun, and she became a part of me, you know?”
“She was an angel on earth. Sometimes I would feel that she was here for me. I would tell her, ‘You’re my best friend and I thank God that he picked you for me. Just for me.'”
Singleton was a mother of three: sons Chris, 19 and Caleb, 12, and daughter Cameron, 15. But friends say her affection knew no bounds. “She would stop by to to see my elderly mother without me even knowing,” says Star Overton Miller, 46, another member of the close-knit bunch from college. “Everyone commented on how beautiful she was inside and out.”
Years ago, says Whidbee, Singleton conveyed her wishes for her funeral, and reminded Whidbee again last week when they gathered for the funeral of Miller’s father. “She always said whatever the time was, let’s remove as much stress from our families when we pass as we can,” she says. “She wrote her own obituary and listed the songs she wanted played at her funeral. I didn’t listen at the time, because I didn’t want to hear that kind of talk.”
Now, it may offer small comfort.
“Sharonda had a faith and a belief that conquered everything,” Whidbee says. “She could make you believe without a doubt that you were going to get through anything victoriously. It’s comforting to know that my best friend died doing what she does best: Reading and living the words out of the Bible.”
“I hate that he took her away from me like that. I hate that he took away someone that was meant to make a change in this world.”
Individuals who want to donate in memory of the victims of the Charleston church massacre are asked to text “prayforcharleston” to 843-606-5995 or donate online at the Palmetto Project.
Reporting by Rose Minutaglio
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