MARSHALL COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) — Ari Hallmark is ready for her next chapter.
“I’m excited for the future,” she said, “I really am.”
The 18-year-old will graduate from Arab High School on May 23. She plans to study health sciences at Snead State Community College in the fall, the same program her mom, Jennifer Garmany Hallmark, attended.
Ari accepted her mother’s diploma from the school 12 years ago, after an EF-4 tornado killed Jennifer, Ari’s father, Shane, and three other members of the Hallmark family in a home on Frontier Road in Arab on April 27, 2011.
Ari survived, but after extensive injuries and a five-day hospital stay, she intimately understands the impact of the healthcare industry.
“All the healthcare that I’ve received after the tornado, I mean, there’s nothing like having a caring, loving nurse by your side,” she said.
Ari won’t just be hitting the books in the fall, though, she’ll also be tying the knot.
“I’m super excited,” she said, “and this goes along the lines of I feel like I’m more mature and I’m ready to just move on to the next chapter. This has been the longest and hardest chapter of my life and I’m just ready to settle down and make something of my own.”
This new journey starts by sharing her story on a larger scale, with the help of longtime family friend, Lisa Reburn, in the book The Girl Who Saw Heaven.
“Lisa is someone who obviously I have trusted as long as I’ve known her,” Ari said, “and there’s really no one else that I would trust as much as I trust her to tell my story. She does it in such a way that it’s pure. She takes in all of my thoughts and opinions on everything and that’s something that’s really important to me, as well. I want it to be authentic and she kept it very authentic and it’s told in such a beautiful way.”
Ari and Lisa first met on May 4, 2011, at the visitation for Ari’s parents, her paternal grandparents and her cousin. Lisa and Ari’s maternal grandmother and later-adoptive parent, Susan Garmany, worked in education together. Susan asked Lisa to help her with Ari throughout the services.
“There was something really unique about her,” said Lisa about that day, “and she was calm and just mature.”
It was the start of a longstanding bond.
“I’ve worked with children my whole life, really, and very few children have a direction when they’re six years old,” said Lisa, “and Ari’s always had a direction. It is a unique friendship. It is and I’ve learned from her and hopefully she’s learned something from me.”
The two first shared Ari’s experience through the 2012 coffee table book To Heaven After the Storm detailing her near death-experience and heavenly encounter. As readers learn in The Girl Who Saw Heaven, though, their work was only beginning.
“It has been very difficult being a child in the system,” said Ari.
In the years to follow, both Susan and Lisa helped Ari fight financial and legal battles, some of the unseen struggles for storm survivors.
“One of the things Susan always said she wanted this book to do was to really inform people about how important it is to have a will,” said Lisa.
The message was the same for Ari.
“It is so important for people to understand that in order for your kids to be taken care of if something happens to both of your parents or anything like that, it’s important to have a will,” she said. I hope that people really gather that and it saves you so much trouble. It also just shows how the system really is against kids.”
After more than a decade in and out of courtrooms and lawyers’ offices, Ari is ready to turn the page.
The Girl Who Saw Heaven isn’t just a testament to what she, Susan and Lisa have endured over the years – it’s a celebration of what comes next with a message for anyone dealing with grief.
“It’s really sad to me how many people are struggling and a lot of people don’t know how to deal with their emotions,” Ari said. “They don’t know how to cope. I hope that this is an outlet for some people and that they find comfort in it.”
Ari’s purpose and drive to share her experience also highlight her unbreakable faith.
“If they’ve had someone die, someone pass away that they love, she knows that hurt and she wants them to know there’s more than that hurt,” said Lisa. “This is a temporary life, that they’ll see their family again.”
In the meantime, Ari and her fiancé will continue to update the house her father originally built and plan for the unwritten.
“My life has been just so chaotic for the past 12 years,” she said, “it really has and I want it to slow down, just for a little bit.”
The Girl Who Saw Heaven officially went on sale on May 9. Ari and Lisa plan to hold some local book signings, but they’re waiting until after Ari graduates from high school.