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Families of girls who drowned in Utah Lake speak to character, passions

Priscilla Bienkowski and Sophia Hernandez vanished from the Knolls at Utah Lake hours before a catastrophic windstorm hit the area.

While the search for the two teens has come to an end, friends and family are speaking out about the girls’ character and goals.

Both 18-year-old Bienkowski and 17-year-old Hernandez were ambitious, extroverted young women who craved fame and fortune, according to the girls’ families. Above that, however, both girls were drawn to helping others.

Stephanie Cowles remembers growing up with Bienkowski as her younger sister, adding that there was never a dull moment to be had.

“She is a very ambitious little girl,” Cowles said. “She is just a goofy little kid and young adult. She was the best sister you could ever ask for.”

More than that, Cowles said, Bienkowski was an amazing aunt to her 11-year-old daughter, teaching her to swim and building a relationship with her niece that was described as akin to sisterhood.

Weeks before her disappearance, Cowles and her daughter spoke to Bienkowski over the phone for hours.

Before her disappearance, Bienkowski had graduated Westlake High School and was taking general courses at Utah Valley University as she tried to determine what her future would hold.

Bienkowski had several different avenues she could take, Cowles said, but the budding college freshman was deciding between becoming a plastic surgeon or performer.

“That girl could sing like nobody’s business,” Cowles laughed. “She has such a beautiful voice.”

Bienkowski was always looking for a creative outlet that she could monetize, Cowles said. From planning her YouTube career to organizing a podcast with friends, Bienkowski was dead set on making it big.

“She didn’t just want to do one thing,” Cowles said. “She wanted to do everything.”

Bienkowski loved everyone she came in contact with, wanting to see each person succeed in their own ways, and despite her family being spread out across the nation — from New York to Nevada — she loved her family more than anything.

Cowles reminisced about a time when she and Bienkowski had taken a trip to a mall near them, laughing that Cowles wasn’t well-versed on the latest internet lingo.

Bienkowski, Cowles said, was fearless, jumping at the chance to ride one more roller coaster or go through another haunted house. Cowles said Bienkowski was the only one in her family willing to brave scares and thrills with her.

It’s times like that, Cowles said, that she likes to think back on as she celebrates her sister’s life.

Cowles said since she heard the news that Bienkowski was found dead, she has been grieving the loss of an incredible sister, aunt and performer.

Rather than words on a page, Cowles said she would love for Bienkowski to be remembered for the caring, loving and ambitious young woman she was.

“She would have accomplished every single dream that she had,” she said. “I just want people to know that she would have done so much more in this world if she had the opportunity.”

Like Bienkowski, Hernandez was a social butterfly, which her family called her often because of her love of butterflies and her ability to make friends wherever she went.

Hernandez was a promising activist, working with her school’s “Latinos in Action” chapter as an active member, helping to empower Latino youth to support their communities and prepare for college.

Outside of school, Hernandez lent her time to Brookhaven Elementary School where she tutored kindergarten students in need.

She was a junior at Westlake High School with dreams of graduating in the coming years and attending the University of California, Los Angeles’ psychology program. Hernandez was drawn to the field of psychology because she wanted to help others.

Already a leader for Latino youth in her community, she was also a fierce advocate for her peers who felt left out.

“Sophia was loved by so many and touched so many lives,” her family said in a statement. “Sophia will forever be in our hearts and will be forever missed.”

Hernandez’ family and friends remember her for her humor as well as her outgoing personality, which led her to TikTok, where she danced and sang. She loved to be on the beach or surrounded by nature as much as she could.

The girls were suspected to have gotten into the water near the Knolls at Utah Lake before 3 p.m. on May 6.

Shortly after, they were reported missing by their parents. The bodies of both girls were discovered on the afternoon of May 14. Neither Bienkowski nor Hernandez were wearing life jackets at the time of their disappearances.

Now, the families of the two girls are collaborating with Saratoga Springs and Utah Lake officials to erect a memorial to honor the lives of both girls.

The memorial, a metal life vest rack, will include a plaque that simply says, “Take one to save a life, leave one to save another." The plaque also will include the names of Bienkowski and Hernandez.

The girls’ funerals and memorials were held earlier this week.


Precollegiate
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Pleasant Grove graduates reflect on lessons learned

Families of Pleasant Grove seniors visited from more than 6 feet away outside the school on Friday during the graduation walk.

“You realize that today is the opposite of the first day of kindergarten,” one parent remarked.

Seniors Logan Cobbley and Bailey Capt actually attended kindergarten together 13 years ago. On Friday they posed for pictures at the completion of their high school experience.

“I don’t remember a lot from kindergarten,” Capt said. “I just remember how we would play at my house or hers. Those memories have kept us together. Logan lives right down the street from me and this is the first time I’ve seen her in two months.”

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Cobbley said. “Not being able to take pictures with some of my other friends has been rough but at the same time, we’ve been able to keep friendships with them.”

With a graduating class of 650 seniors, Pleasant Grove is spreading out graduation activities over four days. Seniors arrive with their family members at the school at a designated time and walk through the auditorium to the cheers of faculty and staff. After posing for pictures in front of a large “G” and receiving their diploma from Principal Steve Stewart, the graduates walk through the school and are greeted by more members of the faculty.

Next Thursday at 7 p.m. all Alpine School District high schools will show a pre-recorded video of student and faculty speeches followed by fireworks at each location.

Cobbley said she enjoyed Friday’s festivities.

“Having seven older siblings, it was nice to not have to sit in a graduation for hours,” she said. “Having a moment with myself and my family was a lot more personal. Through high school, I’ve learned about pressing forward. Even if something doesn’t turn out the way you want, it can still be amazing.”

Cobbley has been working at a grocery store and plans on going into law enforcement.

“I’ve applied at different agencies to work in the records department or in dispatch,” Cobbley said. “The last two months I’ve learned that hard work goes far and it does pay off.”

Capt said that even though COVID-19 had altered graduation, she still enjoyed the festivities.

“I feel like it’s a lot more memorable,” she said. “I’ve learned to not be afraid and to be who I am. In high school it’s easy to get caught up with social media and friends and stereotypes, but it’s just so important to be who you are. These last two months have been very humbling because it’s easy to take things for granted.”

Assistant Principal Matt Norman sat in the school’s auditorium and cheered for each graduate who passed through on Friday.

“It’s just been incredible to have students in the school,” he said. “That’s something we haven’t been able to do for ten weeks. We’re allowing nine family members to come. It’s so great to have everyone here and give them a great experience. They’ve been through such a difficult time.

“I’m hoping they’ve learned something about resiliency. I hope all of us have learned some resiliency. I think we’ve all learned to appreciate things more, things we may have taken for granted. I know I have.”

Mark Christensen, who plans to serve a church mission before returning to study mechanical engineering, said he learned a good work ethic in high school as well as how to treat others.

“I liked the graduation,” he added. “I’ve been to my siblings’ graduations and they were so long. This one was shorter and more personalized.”

Spencer Cory said he thought graduation was “fantastic.”

“There were a lot of upsides and potentially some downsides,” he said. “It went a lot faster than most graduations so it was quite nice. The teachers have to sit through it all, but it was fun for us.”

Cory said he learned two very important lessons while in high school.

“I learned to have as much fun as possible and don’t do drugs,” he said. “The last two months I’ve learned to value each and every one of my relationships.”

Cory is going to do summer sales in Virginia selling pest control.

“That marks the start of me getting rich,” he said. “Everybody is home and people are making a killing right now.”


Orem
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Orem starts new business alliance organization

In an effort to bring together small business owners in Orem, and to give them support and access to resources, the city has launched a new Orem Business Alliance organization.

The first meeting was held in early March with about 100 attending. It was a successful first meeting according to Kathi Lewis, Orem’s Economic Development director. Many stayed after to network.

Then COVID-19 shut down those attempts and, temporarily, many of those businesses with it.

After two months, the organization, the Orem Business Alliance, is up and running again. It's needed more than ever, according to Lewis.

On May 12, it will hold its first webinar with a few banks and financial institutions to talk about ways small businesses can receive financing while the pandemic weighs on the economy.

Orem has about 5,000 businesses on the business license list, according to Lewis.

“Orem is the birthplace of Silicon Slopes,” Lewis said. “We foster a creative support environment where businesses can grow.”

The Orem Business Alliance aims to support and uplift small businesses through a three-fold mission: by providing a venue for business networking, by building a relationship between the city and businesses that implements advocates for the small business community, and by providing small businesses with access to resources.

“We plan to meet the first two objectives through luncheons, meetings and webinars,” said Nate Prescott, Economic Development analyst for Orem. “We plan to meet the third objective through emails, websites and through working with the Utah Valley Business Resource Center.”

The Utah Valley Business Resource Center, adjacent to Utah Valley University, has a number of tools and resources to help small businesses thrive, including a business incubator.

“Our businesses are so important,” Lewis said. “So many small businesses represent the goals and hopes of families in Orem.”

According to Lewis, the Orem Business Alliance has the full support of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce.

"This is something energizing and positive for businesses to meet,” Lewis said. “We saw it at our first meeting. We want to support a healthy business climate.”

The alliance is between the city and businesses with major support from the resource center.

According to Prescott, the alliance is currently building a board of directors and is looking for a few business members to be directors.

Business owners can sign up to receive emails and information from the Orem Business Alliance at https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/YD932BK

You may also call Lewis at (801) 229-7079 or email her at kmlewis@orem.org.


Provo
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Only 30% of shoppers in Utah County are wearing masks

As Utah eases its restrictions on social gatherings and business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah County residents are easing up on their commitment to following health and safety recommendations from state officials.

Data gathered by the Daily Herald shows that only about a third of people recently shopping in Utah County are wearing masks or otherwise covering their faces while shopping.

Of the 746 people that the Daily Herald observed shopping on Friday morning and afternoon in three Utah County cities — Provo, American Fork and Springville — only 229 were seen wearing a mask, bandanna or other face-covering material. That is 30.7% of the total shoppers observed.

At the same time, 517 Utah County shoppers, or 69.3%, were observed not wearing masks or otherwise making efforts to cover their faces.

When the stats are broken down by gender, the divide between mask wearers and non-mask wearers observed on Friday was even greater for men.

Of the 378 men who were observed shopping in Utah County on Friday, 91 of them — 24.1% — were observed wearing masks, while 287 of the men — 75.9% — were not wearing masks.

Out of 368 total women who were seen shopping, 138 of them — 37.5% — were observed wearing masks. Meanwhile, 230 women — 62.5% — were not wearing masks or another face-covering material.

The Daily Herald made a note to only observe customers and not employees since employers have their own guidelines for employees to follow.

The number of people wearing masks while shopping appears generally consistent throughout different parts of Utah County.

Exactly 30% of the 180 total people observed shopping at Walmart Supercenter in American Fork were seen wearing masks. Meanwhile, 31.2% of the 266 shoppers who went to Smith’s Drug and Food in Provo wore masks. And 30.6% of the 300 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in Springville did the same.

Recommendations

Even though the majority of the state, including all of Utah County, was reclassified as “yellow,” or “low risk,” on May 16, Gov. Gary Herbert has advised that residents continue to wear masks in public areas where interaction with others may occur.

“Studies show that wearing masks — even homemade ones — dramatically decreases the spread of COVID-19,” Herbert tweeted on May 14. “Wear a mask when around others to prevent spreading any germs you might have.”

Guidelines developed by the Utah Department of Health and the Governor’s Office of Management for the general public during the “yellow” phase of the pandemic state that face covers should be worn “in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

These face-covering recommendations are no different than the recommendations given during the red “high risk” and orange “moderate risk” phases of the pandemic.

Why (or why not) wear a mask?

Utah County shoppers gave a variety of responses when asked why they chose to — or to not — wear a mask when they went shopping on Friday.

Payson resident Desiree Ross, who went shopping in Springville, didn’t wear a mask Friday despite having a few in her purse.

“It’s not required,” Ross said when asked why she didn’t wear a mask, adding that she doesn’t wear masks while shopping “unless they literally have a sign that says you have to wear it.”

“Not unless the store won’t let you in without one,” Ross said.

Another Payson resident, Karen Harper, said she felt like she and her family members would be better off without the masks, adding that she believes she, her husband and 3-year-old daughter contracted the virus in January while living in Cedar City and have all since recovered.

“I’ve noticed some people that wear masks ... are short of breath and they’re breathing carbon dioxide,” Harper said. “And (I’ve heard) that it can weaken your immune system. So for us, I feel like our immune systems will stay stronger if we’re not wearing it.”

Harper added that “if we do get it, we’re pretty healthy and we’re pretty active, so I feel like we’ll recover fine.”

Ann Irvin, of Santaquin, said she wears a mask whenever she goes out in public because she is over 60 and has a compromised immune system. Irvin took issue with people opting out of wearing masks in public and said their decision to do so puts her in danger.

“It’s like someone’s being flippant with my life,” she said.

83-year-old Bonnie Amberlin, of Salem, who wore a mask during what she said was just the second time she’s been shopping during the pandemic, said she had no problem with others choosing to not wear masks.

“I have no opinion,” Amberlin said. “That’s their choice.”

Payson business owner Pedro Sandoval was leaving the Walmart Supercenter in American Fork with his son early Friday morning with no mask in sight.

“It’s uncomfortable for me,” he said, laughing nervously. “Sometimes I wear it, but it’s really tiring to hold on my ears. Another thing is I’m not out very much, only sometimes.”

Sandoval said he does all of his shopping early in the morning, but not necessarily to avoid larger crowds.

American Fork resident Ethan H., who asked to only be identified by his first name and last initial, said he’s not too sure why he doesn’t wear a mask when shopping, but feels safe regardless.

Two women wearing masks left the American Fork Walmart with groceries in hand, saying they opt to wear a mask for the safety and health of the general public. One woman, Amber, who only gave her first name, said that, as a nurse, she knows just how important wearing a mask in public can be.

A younger couple, Deagan Merrihew and MacKenzie Nielsen, said they feel maintaining the social distancing guideline of 6 feet or more is just as protective as wearing masks.

There have been a total of 1,651 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah County as of Friday, according to the Utah Department of Health, which has resulted in 93 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.

Methodology

The Daily Herald observed 746 shoppers at three different locations in Utah County on Friday, including 180 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in American Fork between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., 300 people who shopped at Walmart Supercenter in Springville between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., and 266 people who shopped at Smith’s Food and Drug in Provo between noon and 1 p.m.