Tyler was unemployed on December 3, making the family outing all the more special at a time when the family was watching its finances. Still, happiness over a season of new beginnings imbued their home. This December would bring the boys' first birthdays in their own home, the couple's first wedding anniversary there, the family's first Christmas there.
According to a police report, Sabrina Evans failed to yield while making a left turn at an intersection. A Jeep hit the passenger side of the vehicle, where Tyler Evans was seated. All Sabrina remembers is her son Joel screaming.
By 8 p.m., Tyler was dead. News reports identified him as a "Newborn man" because he had yet to change the address on his driver's license from his parents' home.
Miraculously, his wife and sons survived with just a few bruises, though since then, Sabrina's shoulder has started to ache, making it hard to do her job stocking inventory at Dollar General, she said.
When police came to Sabrina's bedside to deliver news of her husband's death, she remembers offering up her wrists and asking if she was going to jail. They told her no, that it had been a "horrible, horrible accident," she said.
They ordered blood and toxicology tests, customary in cases of vehicular deaths. The case is still open pending final test results, Lt. Don Eckert of the Athens Police Department said, but he does not expect charges to be made. Drugs and alcohol are not believed to be involved, he said.
"Some cases hit home more than others," he said. "The circumstances of this case could've happened to anybody."
'It changes your outlook'
Perhaps it was the terrifying possibility of a father's death, or the swiftly approaching holiday, or the joyous night turned bad -- but grief poured from the people of Newton County. Covington, a large, semirural community about 40 miles from Atlanta, is known for its picturesque square, which has been the backdrop for films and TV shows through the decades, from "In the Heat of the Night" to "The Vampire Diaries." Each December it turns into a holiday wonderland of bright lights and garlands that hosts a variety of Christmas-related events, from pictures with Santa to holiday concerts.
Many of its residents have called Newton County home their entire lives, contributing to a tight-knit spirit, said Amber Pittman, senior reporter for the Covington News.
"Many residents of Newton County still think of it as a small town and when one of your own is hurting or in need, you give," Pittman said. "This is your worst nightmare. ... One day you're heading out to family dinner and to see Santa and the next day your dad is dead. It's just unbelievably sad."
Her reporting on Tyler's death led the Covington police to reach into its "Police Who Care" fund. Even before Sabrina had buried her husband, the Covington police showed up at her home with $800 in gifts from Walmart: mostly toys, video games and anything related to Batman, as the boys had requested. The gifts were presented to the boys by Santa Claus -- the symbol of Christmas spirit they'd missed seeing the night their father died.
Everyone was touched by the joy and gratitude demonstrated by the two little boys, who seemed to have forgotten for a moment about their father's absence. Their faces lit up as they entered the home to find Santa and nearly 20 police officers, in an exchange Pittman described as heartwarming and that was featured on local television news. They made sure to hug and thank all the strangers present, Pittman said. Later in the week, after she'd buried her husband, Sabrina Evans stopped by the newspaper's office to drop off a thank you card.
It's far from the only kindness to fill the family's home this month. The boys' teachers from Mansfield Elementary School chipped in and brought food to the home twice. A toy store in Athens invited the boys to meet Santa and pick out gifts on Chase's sixth birthday. The towing company that removed the family car raised money for a toy drive. A stranger bought Sabrina a spa package. Atlanta Braves players Brian McCann and Jason Heyward signed jerseys for the boys.
Others are thinking beyond December and into the new year, when the real work of starting a new life without their father begins. That's when Joel's second-grade class intends to start helping the family out in some way, perhaps with a meal every so often or a tree planted in Tyler's memory.
"When the holidays are over and they get past all the busy-ness of Christmas and the boys' birthdays, I feel like that's when it's going to get tough," said Karen Piper, a lifelong resident of Newton County. "That's when we'd like to step in."
While the circumstances of this tragedy are extreme, the response is typical for the school, whose motto is "We are a family," she said. When a bus driver retired last year because of chemotherapy treatment, the staff took up a collection. As soon as teachers learned about Tyler Evans' death, they activated a prayer chain with the family's permission.
The outpouring of support is a bit overwhelming at times, Sabrina said. The season will likely be tempered with sadness for years to come, but the community support now helps the family to cope.
"I'm not the type to ask, 'Hey, can you watch my kids?'" said the 35-year-old widow. "I'd rather do without than ask for help. But the way the community has reached out, it changes your outlook on people."
The kindness helps the community to grieve, too.