Priest says selfless teen in NJ icy pond death ‘had big dreams’
EAST BRUNSWICK — The 13-year-old boy who died in East Brunswick had been at the library with two friends before they ventured out onto an icy pond Wednesday night, a priest who knows the family well told New Jersey 101.5.
Yousef Khela loved to play soccer and basketball and had wanted to be a scientist, according to Mark Hanna of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church.
Hanna said Yousef was a "quiet kid" with big dreams, one of which was to become a scientist.
Instead, the eighth-grade student at Churchill Junior High School was being mourned at a wake Thursday evening.
The death came just hours apart from a similar tragedy in the same county, as an eighth grader in Carteret also fell into an icy pond and had to be recovered by first responders. David Tillberg was pronounced dead Thursday morning.
Yousef was just six months old in 2006 when he moved to the United States with his family from Egypt. Hanna said he was ordained a priest the year before, so he saw the boy growing up as an active member of the church alongside Yousef's parents and two sisters.
Yousef “loved the United States of America, and he said people here help each other, support each other,” so one of his dreams was to help everyone when he grew up.
Hanna said he has spoken to the two young friends who were with Yousef at the pond.
Hanna said the teens told the priest that Yousef was “always doing the right thing and teaching us to do the right thing.”
Yousef was a deacon who served last Sunday night for the Epiphany at midnight Mass, Hanna said. He said the church is "taking care of everything" for the family, while also providing service to them in such a dark time.
Hanna said it touched his heart to see so many young friends and neighbors who visited the hospital and the family’s home in the hours following the tragedy.
Yousef’s mother told the priest that it was her teen son who encouraged them to decorate and get ready for Christmas.
Everyone attending the wake Thursday night was invited to wear white as a celebration of Yousef’s life.
A private liturgy was planned before a funeral at 10 a.m. Friday at Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church at 433 Riva Ave.
The township also is holding a vigil Sunday at 1 Civic Center Drive in East Brunswick from 5 to 6 p.m., which members of the East Brunswick Interfaith Clergy Council will attend.
As Carteret goes through the same harrowing aftermath with the loss of David, a GoFundMe page setup by the teen's aunt is seeking to help cover funeral expenses.
An update to the GoFundMe page said a candlelight vigil for David was being held in Carteret Park near the pond at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Carteret Mayor Dan Reiman said the Mayor’s Charity Trust Fund also would make a donation to the family.
Tillberg was an eighth-grade student at Carteret Middle School, according to borough schools Superintendent Rosa Diaz, who said in a written statement: "There are no words to describe the great sadness our students and staff are feeling right now. Please be assured we will provide every resource possible to support all those affected."
Gov. Phil Murphy said at a public event Thursday that he had spoken to the mayors of both East Brunswick and Carteret, and "God willing" would get a chance to speak to the families who lost both boys.
Murphy called the collective situation "an awful tragedy" in which two teenagers lost their lives and noted the "extraordinarily heroic efforts" by first responders in both communities.
Hanna also commended first responders and the mayor of East Brunswick for helping and supporting the church community and Yousef's family.
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