Kathryn Ballard purchased helium tanks to keep in her home so she could quickly blow up balloons at a moment’s notice. And she was often asked to do so by her son, Zach Chambless, a Dunwoody teen with special needs who loved anything that could fly.
“He loved from an early age things that flew,” she said. “Flags, balloons, birds. And later in his life, bugs. He got so excited about these simple things.”
Chambless, a 17-year-old Dunwoody High School student, had a severe seizure disorder and autism and was unable to speak or care for himself. He was accidentally killed July 3 in a Roswell parking lot, according to police. A friend, also with special needs, shot Chambless while the two were seated unsupervised in an SUV, police say.
They were attending a summer camp group that catered to teens and adults with special needs. The friend, whom police described as having severely diminished mental capabilities, found a gun under a seat of the SUV.
The camp supervisor, Gerard Brister of Brookhaven, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter for leaving the two alone in the SUV.
Ballard, who lives in Auburn, Ga., with her husband Jon, said she chooses to remember only the positive experiences Zach brought into her and her family’s life.
“I don’t want to talk about how he died, but how he lived,” she said.
She said as a Christian, she believes everything happens for a reason “even if I don’t understand it.”
“He loved with such an intensity … it was incredible and sometimes frustrating,” she said. “He was the happiest child — person — I knew.”
Zach was not able to speak but was able to communicate joy through his smile, Ballard said.
He was well known to many people living in Dunwoody. He always carried an American flag and his shock of bright red hair made him stand out.
His father, Larry Chambless, would often take him to Petland on Ashford-Dunwoody Road to interact with the birds.
Many people in the city flew American flags in memory of Zach. At his July 31 memorial service, 250 balloons were released to also commemorate his love of balloons.
“He had this pure, simple joy. He dialed down our world to remind us to enjoy the little things,” she said.
However, it was not easy raising a child with special needs, Ballard said.
The family asked donations to be made in Zach’s name to the Wildcat Fund at Dunwoody High School to support the special education department and also to Atlanta-based Families of Children Under Stress, or FOCUS.
Ballard said she considered his Dunwoody teachers and caretakers “angels on Earth.”
“It does take a village to raise a child like Zach,” she said. “Zach was chosen to part of our lives. But his caregivers in school are angels on earth because they made the choice to be in that field.”
As he got older, concern and anxiety over his care and future weighed heavily on Zach’s family. There is a “tremendous need” for respite care for families raising children with special needs as they get older, she said.
“It’s so scary for parents as children reach Zach’s age and older,” she said. “It wasn’t always easy to have a child like Zach. There were many tears and a lot of frustration. But you just figure it out and surround yourself with people who understand and make the best of the life God has given you.”
Since his death, Ballard said she’s received many messages from people thanking her for sharing Zach with them, even from people who did not know him personally.
People have also told her they will never look at a flag the same way.
“Everyone loved him,” she said. “And I’m trying to live like Zach.”
The Dunwoody High community has lived through several teen deaths in recent years. Alexander “Ty” Flynn, a 2015 Dunwoody High School graduate, died in 2016 after falling through the roof at the Pullman Train Yard. Halle Scott, a 2014 DHS graduate, was one of four University of Georgia students killed in a car crash in 2016. Last year, Phineas Haq, a DHS sophomore, died while running during Spring Break in Florida.
Donations in Zach’s name can be made to The Wildcat Fund, 1198 Wynterhall Lane, Dunwoody, GA 30338 and FOCUS + Fragile Kids, 3825 Presidential Parkway, Suite 103, Atlanta, GA 30340 or focus-ga.org.