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Special award, empty seat at Elkhart graduation honors young student killed

ELKHART, Ind. -- It's graduation season and families all across Michiana are celebrating milestones. But for one Elkhart family, it serves as a somber reminder.

11-year-old Courtney Smith, killed in a hit and run in Elkhart, should have graduated sixth grade on Wednesday. 

Now, her school, Beardsley Elementary, is making sure she'll never be forgotten. 

"They called us [Tuesday] and just asked if we would want to go to the graduation ceremony," explains Bill Smith, Courtney's father. 

It was a different kind of walk the Smith family had expected to take.

On Wednesday, they walked to the site where their 11-year-old daughter was killed.

They didn't get to place her graduation flowers in her hand, so they placed them on the sidewalk where she was run over.

"We look up [at graduation] and see there's a seat there with her gown, her cap, a bundle of roses," recalls Smith. 

The empty seat at graduation, planned by the students and staff, wasn't the end of it.

Beardsley Elementary introduced a new annual award in Courtney's honor. 

"The Courtney Jo Smith Spirit of Beardsley Award. It's for students who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and helped others," Smith says proudly. 

"It's actually an award the students came up with," says Mike Clemons, Courtney's teacher. 

He had her in his class for fifth grade as well.  He knew this day couldn't go unrecognized. 

"Courtney was a girl that literally loved people and life," he explains. "This award is going to remind students to always, always give your best and live your days to the fullest. Because you just never know."

While Leah Rodriguez, the first recipient of the award, didn't know Courtney personally, even she knew what kind of person she was. 

"Always smiling," she says. "After hearing Courtney was such a special girl, and then for me to get this award, it makes me feel special."

Her family is still in the grieving process. 

"All I can think about is this is the last one going on the wall," says Smith, with a sad smile. 

The reality of the lost milestones and moments is now truly hitting their family. 

"This is the first one she wasn't there for. That was a first," he says. "There won't be a high school diploma. There won't be one of that. So she'll always remain a Bulldog."

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