HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Aya Youssef spent four years playing varsity basketball for Atlee High School in Mechanicsville.
Due to her leadership skills, she was made a team captain. And thanks to her defensive prowess, in February, she was named the Lady Raiders’ basketball player of the year.
Aya graduated earlier this month, and will be heading to Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall.
Officially, her playing days are over, but that didn’t keep her from earning a surprise scholarship.
It has nothing to do with athletics, but everything to do with a former coach.
In the early morning hours of January 1, 2019, while many were still ringing in the birth of a new year, one family was dealing with the unexpected death of a loved one.
Michelle Rawlings, 25, was shot and killed inside her eastern Henrico apartment at about 7:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, but many family members didn’t learn about her death until much later.
“To know that at 12:00 she was already in a body bag, and we’re celebrating, making it to a new year… that’s what hurt me the most,” said Nicole Rawlings, one of Michelle’s sisters.
The gunman was an ex-boyfriend. Police say that after he shot Michelle, he turned the gun on himself.
“The worst day ever,” said Michael Rawlings Sr., Michelle’s father. “There is nothing else that could be more devastating for me, as a father, than to lose a child.”
While the tragedy has affected the entire family, it has been particularly hard for Nicole, Michelle’s identical twin.
“For me, personally, she was my other half,” said Nicole. “My life partner, my diary, my best friend… she was everything.”
The two had spent almost their entire lives together, from sharing a room throughout childhood to living together while attending Norfolk State University.
Both earned degrees in psychology, and both worked in foster care.
The twins separated for the first time in 2016, when Michelle moved back to the Richmond area, and Nicole stayed in Hampton Roads.
“It was hard, but it actually did make our relationship grow,” Nicole said. “We still talked every day – FaceTime, phone calls, texts throughout the day, talking at work – we didn’t skip a beat.”
Michelle began pursuing a master’s degree. But she had another aspiration: to coach alongside her father.
Michael Rawlings Sr. is the head coach of the Atlee girls basketball team. Last year, Michelle became a full-time assistant.
“Part of me bringing her there was the inspiration that I saw she could bring to young ladies,” said Michael. “She could be a counselor… she could be a competitor, whatever the girls needed.”
“They were her babies,” said Nicole. “She got to experience being a coach and being a big sister again to them and everything. It was good for her.”
And it was good for the players.
“I’ve had coaches come and go, but I really felt like I had a connection with her,” said Aya Youssef. “She was always there for me.”
As a captain, Aya was one of the first members of the team told about Michelle’s murder.
“I was baffled, and I didn’t start crying until I got in the car and it finally hit me that I was, like, I’m never going to see her again.”
But the family made a vow to keep her name alive.
They have set up a nonprofit called the Michelle L. Rawlings Legacy Foundation.
The focus is mental health awareness, and the goal is to provide an outlet and resources for people in crisis.
“It’s just too easy to give up,” said Nicole. “If you don’t know how to be strong mentally and emotionally, what are you going to do?”
Funded by donations, half of the money goes toward advocacy work, while the rest goes into a scholarship.
The Rawlings family knew exactly who deserved the inaugural award.
“I heard about it on Senior Night when they actually gave it to me,” said Aya. “It’s pretty amazing, especially to be the first recipient, it was really an honor.”
Aya says she can still hear Michelle’s words of encouragement, while Michelle’s siblings say they often feel her spirt.
“She’s here, and the presence sometimes is so strong and it breaks me down to my knees,” said Lekisha Walker, Michelle’s older sister. “Everywhere that I go, if I see a sunflower, I think about her.”
Still, the bad days are tough to get through.
“You don’t realize that I’m in half,” said Nicole. “I don’t even know what it feels like to feel a regular heartbeat.”
In fact, the whole family has been irreparably changed.
“I’m not the same person I was before she left,” said Michael Rawlings II, one of Michelle’s brothers, who says he still struggles with not being able to protect his sister. “I’m the oldest, this is stuff that I’m supposed to know, I’m supposed to have been there.”
But Michelle Rawlings’s legacy is in capable hands, on and off the court. And the head coach says he couldn’t be prouder of the ones who are now drawing up the plays.
“They’ve done all the work and so I can just sit back and watch and I’m really happy about that,” said Michael Rawlings Sr. “My kids had been very inspirational to me.”
An inspiration that sprung from grief, and has motivated this family to try to help as many people as they can.
“If we can do it, you can do it, if we can push through, you can push through,” said Nicole. “You just have to find that one thing that will just motivate you and keep you pushing.”
The Michelle L. Rawlings Legacy Foundation became a licensed state corporation in April.
The family is in the process of developing an official Facebook page. In the meantime, people who would like to donate can do so here.
They have also established a mental health support hotline: 1-833-4-CHELLE (1-833-424-3553).