A day to ‘Live like Vai’: Beloved Conception dive boat victim Vaidehi Campbell Williams fittingly celebrated

Friends, family and co-workers listen to Susan Moren, Vai Campbell's mom, play songs in her daughter's memory on Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Friends, family, co-workers turned out to honor Vaidehi Campbell Williams with a memorial garden at the Soquel Creek Water District. Vai, as most knew her, was killed with 33 others on the dive boat Conception off the Channel Islands over Labor Day weekend in 2019.

Thursday was Vai Campbell’s kind of day.

Shovels in the ground, Earth Day spirit in the air, smiling faces all around.

“Perfect,” said her dad James while kneeling and digging a hole in a plot of soil adjacent to the Soquel Creek Water District office where his daughter worked for 18 years and was now being memorialized with a garden in her name.

(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Moments earlier Vai’s mom, Susan, had strummed her guitar and sang softly “I’m gonna spread my love all over” while others joined in.

A group of 25 friends, family and co-workers had congregated on this cool, overcast day for what amounted to a belated memorial service for Campbell, one of 34 divers who perished in the worst maritime catastrophe in California history. The tragedy occurred 18 months ago off the coast of Santa Barbara on the dive boat Conception.

As the plaque on a redwood bench that will preside over the Soquel Creek site in her honor proclaims, Vai was a “Water Princess.” It explains both her love of exploring below the ocean’s surface and her passion for spreading the gospel of water conservation throughout her community.

Vaidehi 'Vai' Campbell Williams
(Courtesy family)

But her mom says what really set Vaidehi Campbell Williams apart was her gift for human connection — and kindness.

“Connecting to people — that’s what she did,” Susan Moren said, taking a quick break from her own digging and gazing around at the others creating this living memorial to her daughter. “She was so loving.”

The community’s loss

Thursday’s scene was emblematic of the community gaps left behind after sudden tragic events such as the dive boat fire, which took the lives of six Santa Cruz County residents, left the boat captain facing manslaughter charges and placed the safety of all such operations under the spotlight.

Vai’s husband, Sarma, and kids, now 12 and 9, were planning to attend the memorial planting but the emotional stress of being there was weighing too greatly on the children, their grandma said: “I don’t blame them for not wanting to feel sad.”

But all who spoke of their experiences with Vai, the nature-loving people person who seemingly never had a bad word to say about anyone, were channeling her good energy Thursday.

Sherry Lee Bryan of Ecology Action hatched the plan for this very type of day with Vai in the months before her death at age 41 on Labor Day weekend of 2019. Together they devised the Monterey Bay Friendly Landscape Program with the idea of making small beautification programs more accessible to the community.

Shelley Flock shows off the redwood bench with plaque for Vai.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

The idea is for businesses, or even residents in high-visibility areas, to apply for $2,500 mini-grants through Ecology Action. Their collection of programs are designed to train both professional landscapers and homeowners in creating low water use, low chemical use, high habitat-value landscape installations — and “lovely water-wise Monterey Bay gardens.”

That was clearly in the works along Soquel Avenue on Thursday, where cars honked in support of those digging 38 holes to get the Vaidehi Campbell Memorial Garden started.

(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“This is the very first project” from that vision the two women had shared, Bryan said. “She championed it when a lot of others were skeptical it could be done. Vai was very sure.”

The centerpiece of Thursday’s inaugural plantings: A large Salvia apiana, or California white sage, with special meaning. It was a plant Vai got at a local farmer’s market and had given to Bryan as a gift.

When Bryan learned of her friend’s passing, she thought about that sage plant and how it had outgrown multiple vessels over the years since. She suspected a perfect spot for it to grow and flourish would materialize soon — and Thursday it did.

“The perfect place,” she said.

Sherry Lee Bryan saw the idea of her and Vai Campbell come to fruition on Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

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