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Berhanu family: Leah will live on; legacy continues through scholarship

MORGANTOWN — Rebecca Berhanu wants Morgantown to know: The legacy of her late sister will support the things Leah loved.

Leah Berhanu, a 21-year-old Morgantown native and WVU engineering student, died Feb. 1, after being struck by a vehicle on Patteson Drive.

Michelle Gelada, the 21-year-old driver of that vehicle, was found not guilty of negligent homicide at trial. Testimony at trial indicated Gelada sped up to catch a light before it turned red, but the jury agreed with the defense’s summation that the accident was tragic, rather than negligent.

But Leah’s death struck a chord — the first and most tragic of three auto-pedestrian accidents in about 30 days in the Morgantown area.

“We’re not going to not say Leah’s name,” Rebecca Berhanu told WAJR. “We’re not going to be scared to talk about her, to laugh about the things that she loved because it can sometimes make people uncomfortable or kind of bring it all back.

“We’re not going to do that, because that’s not who Leah was.”

Rebecca, now a fourth-year pharmacy student at WVU, said her family decided not long after Leah’s death they wanted Leah’s legacy to be about helping people. That initial thought took on the form of an endowment for a scholarship at WVU.

“It was not too long after that that we thought, ‘you know, this isn’t that outrageous of an idea. This is what she would have wanted,’” she said. “Whether she saw it happening this soon? Of course not. But if she’s not here to make that dream come true, then we want to do it for her.”

The Leah Berhanu Financial Rescue Scholarship has two particulars, though. First, to best honor Leah’s passions, the scholarship should help promote access for women who want to be engineers — who make up just 14 percent of the industry’s work force.

“She quickly noticed, as many other students do, that there isn’t a strong female predominance,” Rebecca said. “And that was something she wanted to see change.”

Additionally, she sees the scholarship as a service to students whose financial situation is threatening their education.

“She was really passionate about civil engineers, women, strong women,” Rebecca said, “but also maybe people who didn’t have parents who went to college or could provide for them the way our parents could.”

Leah interned at The Thrasher Group. Rebecca said, as the story goes, Leah walked up to Woody Thrasher one day after seeing him speak and used that bold personality to stand apart from the crowd and earn an internship. Since Leah’s death, the company hosted events for Leah’s family, gifted $5,000 as part of the scholarship, and started its own scholarship for summer interns in Leah’s name.

“She really, really found a home and a place with Thrasher,” Rebecca said. “To see them contribute to kind of making Leah’s dream a reality was very special to us.”

In the future, Rebecca expects the family to fundraise, usually around the time of Leah’s death, to keep the scholarship funded. Currently, those wishing to donate to the scholarship fund can contact the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

“We hope that this really helps somebody, inspires them or moves them in the way that Leah inspired and moved us,” Rebecca said.

Rebecca said the family was ‘OK,’ but still grieving, still healing, and painfully aware that no amount of time really ever closes that wound. But, she said, honoring her little sister’s big-time personality has helped.

“She lived life like it was her last, and had this really cool way making it her mission to make one person’s day or make one person laugh every day,” Rebecca said.” I think with that mentality, I think we’ve been able to get through pretty well, but it definitely has been hard.”

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