Shirley was the youngest in a family of four girls being raised by a single mother. Her mom, who cooked, cleaned and cared for other people's children, made her girls read all the time. Shirley devoured learning.
She desperately wanted to go to college and become a social worker, but she knew college wasn't something her mother could afford. A teacher who saw Shirley's hunger -- and knew the Wesleys -- would help make her dreams possible.
In the late fall of 1963, after the bombing, the teacher told Shirley's mother about the Wesleys and how they'd treated Cynthia as if she was their own. She explained how another child in the Wesley home might help heal their wounds, and that they had the means to support a girl with ambitions like Shirley's.
It was an interesting proposition, but Shirley's mother knew it wasn't her decision to make.
"My mother asked me what I thought about going to visit this family. I said, 'I would love to go to college,'" Shirley remembers saying. "She said, 'Well, I want you to go to college, too.'"
Her relationship with the Wesleys grew slowly. The couple first came over for a visit, bringing with them the family dog, a cockapoo named Tootsie. Over the course of months, many back-and-forth visits followed. The families got to know and respect one another. Shirley says by the time she moved in with them in April 1964, she enjoyed being part of a blended family. Her biological family lived near school, so she never stopped seeing them. But she would call the Wesleys her parents, too.
Shirley was 18 months younger than Cynthia, and though in some respects she stepped in where Cynthia left off, she never felt like she was a replacement daughter. There was no way she could be, she says. Cynthia was a "steady spirit" in the Wesley home, she says, her eyes welling. An extension of them all -- herself included.
"I could, to a degree, step into her shoes," she says, but they were different people. "She played clarinet. I did not do that. I played piano."
A large portrait of Cynthia hung above the piano Shirley practiced on every day. She slept in the twin bed that once belonged to Cynthia, and shared a bedroom with a grandmother who talked about Cynthia all the time. There were tears about the girl the Wesleys had lost, but Shirley says, "As much as they could, they wanted to focus on life."
She knows her being there helped the Wesleys cope and find some semblance of continuity. But Shirley, who now lives in Dallas, also knows she got just as much in return.
With them, her world opened up. The love the couple shared inspired her. Beyond gaining access to higher education and different circles, she developed new passions.
The Wesleys were involved with an organization that brought people of diverse faith, race, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds together. Shirley learned to not be afraid of differences, embrace the hard conversations and seek out the good.
She earned a Ph.D. in social work, taught and became an associate dean at a university. She led courses and fostered dialogues about ethics and diversity. She became active in the Southern Poverty Law Center and -- a nod to how her life was changed -- has long done work in the fields of foster care and adoption. She has trained people working in child welfare, consulted with agencies and volunteers, and advised prospective and current families. Today she helps her husband, a clinical psychologist, run a mental health and substance abuse facility.
"No matter what your loss is, you have to focus on the positive -- not the things you can't change," she says. "And you have to learn to forgive. If you hold onto anger, you end up being your worst enemy."
Only one person in that church bathroom survived the blast, and that was Sarah Collins, younger sister of victim Addie Mae Collins. She was 12 at the time, the youngest in a family of eight children, and she says she remembers everything.
Sarah, dubbed "the fifth little girl," was severely injured that day and has spent much of her life feeling ignored. Sometimes she thinks the world would have cared more about her if she'd died, too.
She and Addie had skipped Sunday school that morning and were hiding in the ladies lounge in the basement. Sarah peeked out the door to see Denise, Carole and Cynthia coming their way after class ended. She scrambled back inside and went to the sink, pretending she had to wash her hands. Addie stood beside her.
The other three girls came into the lounge. They weren't in there together for more than four or five minutes, Sarah says. Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Sarah looked over her shoulder, her hands still in the sink, and watched.
Then it hit.
"That sound," she says, "It's in my spirit. I still jump now. I hear that bomb in my sleep."
The room was reduced to pieces. Left behind were a seven-by-seven foot hole in the wall and a crater more than five feet wide and two feet deep, as described in Diane McWhorters's seminal book, "Carry Me Home." Remnants of the eastern wall of the basement blew to the western wall.
The window exploded. Glass flew into Sarah's eyes, face and chest. She was blinded and screamed, "Addie! Addie!" There was no response.
People have said that Sarah was found under the rubble, and that she had been in a separate room with the stalls and that's what saved her. But her memory is different. She says she never left that sink in the lounge and remained standing.