After a friend’s death, Franklin student helps him graduate

In an instant, his best friend was gone.

Franklin Community High School senior Chance Utterback remembers his friend, Colton Leeper, as someone who would serve anyone who needed help.

“He was my first friend, and we became best friends in fourth grade,” Utterback said. “He’s the nicest person on the planet. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

But on March 15, Leeper was killed in a car crash on Hurricane Road. He was less than three months away from graduating high school and still had one thing left to complete before he collected his diploma in May: his senior project.

This year, Franklin High School instituted a requirement for its senior class. Students are required to complete a project that will have a positive impact on the community. Leeper decided to help the Interchurch Food Pantry, said Carol Phipps, the pantry’s executive director.

“He wanted to know if he could help us in any way. I suggested a food drive and he jumped at that idea,” Phipps said. “He was working on that for several months, and it was about to come to completion; that’s when the accident happened. A counselor reached out and said students and friends all wanted to complete his efforts and they were beginning to collect the food they wanted to bring in.”

Utterback told Leeper about his plan a week before he died.

“A week before he passed, he told me he would take a box to his work and set it up there and get (the food drive) started,” Leeper said. “I wanted to make sure he graduated. All he wanted to do was graduate and go to college. He would be the first person in his family to go.”

Leeper, with the help of physical education teacher Ashley Jennings, social studies teacher Craig Harvey and Mari Weidman, senior project and graduation pathways coordinator, raised about $200 for food and necessity purchases for the pantry, along with a collection of donated items, such as paper towels, soap, condiments, hand towels, canned food, flour and sugar. After the group combined items already collected with item purchased with the donated money, they were able to donate 218 pounds of food and goods to Interchurch Food Pantry, Utterback said.

The pantry serves about 600 families a week, Phipps said.

Although teachers helped out, most of the credit should go to Leeper and Utterback, Jennings said.

“The person who should be credited is Chance Utterback. (He) and Colton were nearly brothers, they were so close,” she said. “It was really taking a toll on him, and when Weidman talked about completing the project I didn’t know if Chance would be interested in completing that in honor of him. Chance jumped on that with no hesitation.”

Although people may think of teenagers as self-absorbed, Leeper and Utterback displayed the power of giving back, Harvey said.

“I think a lot of times, young people get characterized as selfish or egocentric,” he said. “The rest of the community gets to see they think about others and their friends and go beyond what is within them. For him to pay tribute to his friend’s legacy is something the community needs to know and understand.”

Now, although he will be represented by an empty chair, Leeper will be able to realize his dream of graduating high school.

“He was just an amazing person,” Utterback said. “It means a lot, because it means he will be able to graduate with me and all of his friends.”