"She was one of those kids that everyone was drawn to because she was so genuinely kind," Payton Chester's former principal tells PEOPLE

By KC Baker and Tim McGovern
January 27, 2020 08:50 PM
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Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton were two of nine victims, along with Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, on board the helicopter that crashed on Sunday.

A day after the tragic incident, the Chester family released a statement, mourning the loss of their loved ones. “Yesterday we lost our mother and wife, Sarah, and sister and daughter, Payton. We are devastated by this loss,” the statement began.

“Sarah and Payton were the lights of our family. Payton had a smile and personality that would light any room, and a passion for the game of basketball. She found joy on any court and loved all of her teammates and coaches. Sarah was full of life and the glue of our family. She was a tireless force in support of her family. The love we feel from so many today is a testament to the community she created for us,” the family continued.

“Our prayers and condolences go out to the Bryant, Altobelli, and Mauser families. We were all blessed to be a part of Team Mamba, and we will always remember the fun and love that we all shared. We also send our prayers and condolences to the Zobayan family. We are thankful for the love and support of our family, friends and community. Please allow us privacy to grieve during this time,” the statement from the family concluded.

Speaking to PEOPLE, Todd Schmidt, the former principal of Harbor View Elementary School where Payton attended with her brothers before they moved to St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, said Sarah and Payton were members of a “dream family.”

“The thing about the Chesters is, as a principal, they were truly a dream family,” said Schmidt, who has since moved to a school closer to his own children. “They were a principal’s dream family.”

Sarah Chester, Payton Chester
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“They were supportive and encouraging,” shared Schmidt, who knew the Chesters “for at least five years” while the three children were in elementary school. “They had these wonderful children who lit up everything. Everyone was drawn to them. So when I found out and people were texting me and letting me know, it was crushing because they really just were that special.”

Schmidt added, “Payton was one of those kids that everyone was drawn to because she was so genuinely kind. She went out of her way to make sure people felt comfortable. She would seek out that kiddo who was alone and include them.”

“I have this picture of her during their fifth-grade holiday performance where she was dressed as a snowman,” he recalled. “She had to be out in front of all these people and just start dancing — the tears coming down my face as I was laughing. The joy you saw on her face as she was doing this: that was her.”

Stressing the impact Payton “had on so many kiddos,” Schmidt said she was “a light that made so many people want to be around her.”

“Every teacher who had her knew they had an amazing child they knew was going to work hard but was also going to be a model student to others,” Schmidt shared. “She had the ability to bring out the best in every child. She had the biggest smile all the time. You knew that it was genuine.”

Payton Chester
Courtesy Chester Family

Schmidt also described how Sarah was “just a great parent” who would “volunteer in the classrooms” and “do whatever needed to be done.”

“What I always loved about her was that she had a really mischievous sense of humor and one of her favorite things to do was during PTA meetings, she would try to get me to smile or crack or start laughing when I was having to do something,” he remembered. “I would try to sit on the same side as her so I wouldn’t have direct eye contact. She would get up and move so she could.”

Touting Sarah’s experience as a former teacher, Schmidt described her as “a sounding board,” adding, “I could come with ideas and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ I got to use her as a lens as a teacher and a parent. She always gives me her insight. She had great ideas. We had a great partnership.”

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Reflecting on the tragic crash, he said, “That’s why this is so gut-wrenching. It’s been a really bad 24 hours.”

With several people reaching out to Schmidt, he interprets the outreach as a sign of the Chesters’ far reach. “You could tell how much of an impact the family has even when they are gone,” Schmidt said. “That was the Chesters.”

Confirming that Payton was on the basketball team that Bryant, 41, coached, Schmidt described her as a skilled basketball player. “She was a great basketball player. She had older brothers she could play off of. What she brought to school she brought to that team,” he said.

After the incident, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School confirmed the news in a memo obtained by PEOPLE, in which the school said Payton was enrolled in eighth grade and Sarah served on its board of trustees.

Sarah is survived by her husband Chris and her two sons, Hayden and Riley, who are in 10th grade.

Payton Chester
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“This is an unimaginable loss for the Chester family and the entire St. Margaret’s community,” read the memo. “We are a community in mourning. Our greatest strength is when our St. Margaret’s community pulls together with arms around one another, and this is one of those times.”

A representative from St. Margaret’s Episcopal School did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

The private helicopter was reportedly headed to a travel basketball game for Gianna and her teammates, including Alyssa Altobelli, before it crashed in Calabasas.

Emergency personnel responded to the crash but none of the nine people on board survived, authorities said during a press conference, hours after the crash.

Bryant is survived by Vanessa, 37, and their three daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.

Spokespersons for Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office and LAPD did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.