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                                        TEARS TOO SOON

                                  Tragic deaths of friends, relatives change lives of Immokalee teenagers

Apr. 18, 2013   |  
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Community's support comforts grieving Immokalee mom
Editorial: Pain in Immokalee

Kanasha Unique Nicole Isaac
Died: 2/24/13. Age: 16 years.


The Immokalee High bell rang at 2:23 p.m. Junior Timia Wells left English III behind, joined the throng of students drifting toward the exits, and found a ride to the cemetery. Lake Trafford Memorial Gardens is two miles off Immokalee's main road, past a horse pasture and next to the Little League diamonds. It's one of two graveyards in the small farming town of 24,000 people southeast of Fort Myers.

Timia, who is 17 years old, stepped to a mound of sand, under which her cousin is buried.

Kanasha was murdered in Fort Myers.

Timia picked up the pink silk flowers, ribbons shuddering in the breeze.

I love you and miss you, she told her. Why do the good always die young?

It's not uncommon to see a teenager speaking to the dead. They leave cans of Coke, notes, and flowers on their graves. They crank up songs they listened to together.

They are their friends.

Kanasha Isaac was the most recent of 10 Immokalee teenagers to be killed in less than two years. Tragedy has come in varied forms: Drownings. Car accidents. Murders. A suicide. A student athlete collapsed during a basketball game.

"You don't want to sit and think about all the children you have buried," said Joe Brister, director of Brister Funeral Home. The town's sole funeral home was started by his father. "If you go into it thinking about them all the time, your longevity in this job is short."
View Gallery: Funeral for Immokalee teen

View Gallery: Immokalee cemetery

Eight went to Immokalee High, home of the Indians, and the only high school in town for 1,400 teenagers. It's a place where classmates are often cousins. Many students have been friends since elementary school. No other area school has experienced that kind of loss, in memory or school records.

"To have so many deaths accumulate in a short period of time in a small town, it can really be like an epicenter of a tragic major event," said Dr. Omar Rieche, medical director for Lee Memorial Behavioral Health Center. As it does for war veterans, the trauma may reverberate through the lives of Immokalee High students and teachers.

They could experience post-traumatic stress or feel excessively guilty. But teenagers are resilient, and Immokalee runs on strength and faith.

"It's a very close-knit building," said Immokalee High Principal Mary Murray. "They're sad because they lost their friend but there's an acceptance because of their faith."

Ten minutes outside Murray's office offers a glimpse at the school's makeup: a mother shows up in business casual khakis. A father arrives in construction boots. Students glide between English, Spanish and Haitian Creole. About 75 percent of students speak a language at home other than English. Nearly all receive free or reduced lunch.

"It's like a big family out here and that's helping in getting along with life," said Rick Heers, a retired minister who has lived in Immokalee 24 years. He subs at the high school, where students greet him as Sir and recognize him as one of the only writers for the town's weekly newspaper.

Still, questions haunt the town and repeat with each loss.

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Michael Jon Perez & Amanda Alvarado
Died: 5/30/11. Ages: 17 years.


"I'ma hit this night up like it's my last. Swear I'ma, swear I'ma do it like, like I never had it at all," Big Sean's "My Last" blasted on the car stereo.

It's the last song Angelica Torres recalls hearing, the final time she saw her best friend, Amanda Alvarado. Earlier that night, Alvarado had called Torres and another friend.

Let's chill, she told them.

Angelica and Amanda had clicked as students at PACE Center for teenage girls, an alternative school they attended in Immokalee. It had been awhile since Amanda was dating Michael Perez, a high school band member who wanted to be a mechanic. That night, the girls cruised Immokalee, and laughed like they used to over chicken wings and tenders after school or when crank-calling their friends.

A few mornings later, she saw on Facebook that Michael had passed. Amanda is going to suffer, she thought. Michael was her life. Another post collapsed her heart; Amanda died too.

Michael and Amanda died after his car crashed into the car in which she was riding. They share a headstone.

It didn't seem possible. Old people die. Not her friends. They had barely lived. Nearly two years later, her death still doesn't seem real. When Angelica is alone, driving roads lined with tomatoes and oranges that lead out of Immokalee, she sometimes blasts country music that makes her cry. Her thoughts drift to Amanda.

What if I crash in five minutes? How would it affect my family? Will I see Amanda?

"People say they're OK and they're not," said Angelica, who is 19. "You don't get over it over a week, or a month or a year."

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Enoch & Saturnino Trejo
Died: 11/6/11. Ages: 17 years, 14 years.


It's often said that a parent should never have to bury a child. Then, neither should one have to bear mourning two, as Maricela Trejo does. She lost two sons in a day.

Enoch, the elder, was quiet until friends came around. Saturnino dreamed of being a rapper. One morning, the brothers and a few friends drove through the swamps and into Everglades City to fish. Their cast net stuck to the rocks. Saturnino tugged and slipped into the water. Enoch treaded in to rescue his brother. Neither knew how to swim.
At the time, Trejo wondered if God took them together because they were so close.

After the brothers' deaths, Ariza Reyes, a director for Young Life Christian ministry for teenagers, was dropping off group members at Farm Workers Village, a community of modest homes flung from Immokalee's main drag. She saw people gathered at the brothers' home. One of the teenagers asked to stop. They knocked, and Trejo opened the door.

Can we pray for y'all? a girl asked.

She welcomed the group. Reyes noticed Trejo slightly smile. These students loved her sons. The teenagers formed a circle. Reyes grabbed the mother's hand and prayed.

Later that school year, in the spring, Immokalee High's health and physical education teacher, Tracy Bowen, organized a CPR and drowning prevention event for about 160 freshmen. Until the drownings, she didn't realize how many students didn't know how to swim.

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Erica & Aracely Landeros Died: 8/13/12.
Ages: 17 years, 14 years.


Long summer days grew shorter, and near the start of the next school year, another Immokalee family would know their nightmares and be left with two empty places at family dinners.

The sisters died in a car crash in Mexico, where they were buried. A Mass was held later at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Immokalee. Erica would have been a junior at Immokalee High. Aracely would join her soon, and that school year would celebrate her 15th birthday and quinceanera, a party that many girls of Mexican heritage plan like weddings. Her birthday was a difficult day at school.

Friends and relatives continue to grieve on a Facebook page to honor their memory. Their ages and the date of the crash come from this page.

Theres No Day Where iDont Think oF YallÉiLove Both Of Yall And Also Miss Yall. Theres More People Headinq Yur Way♥ And TBH iSometimes Think To Die Too Just To Be Up There And Forqet Of Everythnq. But Just Remember That Youll Always Own Part Of My Heart.

A middle sister survived the crash, and returned to high school. Administrators have seen her struggle with guilt. Why them and why not me?

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Coby Deleon & Natalia Trejo Died: 12/12/12.
Ages: 18 years, 17 years.


The silver casket topped with blue flowers in the sanctuary of Bethel Assembly of God was open to the hundreds of people there for the funeral of Coby Deleon.Teens in hoop earrings dabbed their eyes as Coby lay in a baseball hat at the front of the church. Mothers hugged their babies. In the front row sat Coby's mother. She's a member at Bethel, a mostly Hispanic congregation and one of the largest churches in a town where sanctuaries regularly spring up in homes and storefronts. Bethel church has held half of the funerals for the teens.

"I see a lot of people crying tonight," the children's pastor, Frank Rincon, addressed the crowd. "I don't have the answers or the comfort, but I know somebody that does. And his name is Jesus."

Coby's mother cried and nodded.

The young lovers died in a murder-suicide. Investigators identified Coby as the shooter. His mother has many questions about what happened, and the only two who can give her answers are gone.

Years earlier, Rincon had spent a few days with Coby, who had attended the church but stopped going. He and Rincon cleaned outside the church, joked and talked. Coby seemed like a happy kid, so when Rincon heard the news, he wondered, Could I have done something to help him?

The same questions nagged Immokalee High's P.E. teacher Bowen, also the cheerleading coach. Could I have done something more?

She had Natalia Trejo, Coby's steady girlfriend, in cheerleading. She had joined the squad as a sophomore. Though ineligible to perform due to grades, she didn't miss practices. If cheers looked less than crisp, she'd say, "Y'all not looking cute," a phrase Bowen still uses. Grief pushed Bowen to organize a week of awareness at Immokalee High on teen dating violence with Natalia's friends and students in the Women of Influence Club. Students signed pledges to look for signs of unhealthy relationships. Almost 700 students came to presentations.

A day after school that week, Bowen and four of Natalia's best friends and cheerleaders, headed to the cemetery to visit her grave, atop which angels sit. Talking, remembering for three hours, it was the first time Bowen hadn't felt like crying for months.

The wind picked up. See? Nati's paying attention, they said.

Rincon ended Coby's service with a call to teenagers.

"I want to tell you teenagers tonight, and more than ever, seek out your parents," he said. "Don't think for a moment that the people around that the people you hang around in school, love you more than your parents."

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Juan Canuto Died: 1/5/2013.
Age: 17 years.


Go...JUAN!

The cheer rose from the huddle of the players on Immokalee's Special Olympics basketball team. It was late February and the state championship in Gainesville. Players wore T-shirts with Juan Canuto's number, No. 8, during their warm-up. The month before, Juan collapsed on the court, during a Special Olympics basketball tournament near Miami, and his Immokalee High teacher and coach, Kelly Stevenson-Crews, rushed to his side.
Juan was one of about 15 students with learning disabilities in a modified program. Stevenson-Crews provided the details of his death. She and her students attended his funeral at Guadalupe Catholic Church. They set-up luminary bags outside marked with what they loved about him.

Juan was funny. He was my best friend. He drew good pictures.

Three months later, his classmates see his picture and say, Juan's in heaven. Doing science experiments, they'll remark, Juan would have loved this.

At the start of a game, his teammates typically yell, "Go, Indians!" but they decided that the final game was for Juan. They brought home golds.


The deaths have been reminders to teenagers: Life is short and fragile. If you are not doing something good with yours, you better start. Though you breathe now, soon you may not.

"You've got to learn how to move forward and do the best," Tshumbi Johnson, 18, tells classmates who seek advice on coping.

Immokalee's star quarterback played football with Coby when they were younger. Natalia helped him with pronunciation in Spanish II class. Two days after the deaths of Coby and Natalia, the team headed to the state championship. He and the other captain told the team, play for them. They lost by a point. Success in sport has lifted spirits, administrators said.

Immokalee High parent Gilbert Flores understands the devotion to football, but the losses make him wonder if priorities need to shift. Flores has sat on the school advisory council for years. At a recent meeting, he noticed he was the only parent there. Thousands come out for games.

He'd like to see more conversations in school centered around urging teens to make better choices, reaching children in need of intensive mentoring.

"We're losing our kids in terms of direction and goals in life," he said.

The school's lead guidance counselor, Charles Brown, said administrators have not noticed overall change in behavior or academics. School returns to status quo after the burial, though they keep an eye for students who look sad or are avoiding class.

"I hate to say it, but you can spot them now," said Brown.

Staff identified about 20 students noticeably struggling. In late March, Immokalee High partnered with Avow Hospice of Naples to start a bereavement group during school.At the Immokalee office of David Lawrence Center, the safety net mental health provider in Collier County, Cristy Ensenat, a counselor, sees more teenagers with anxiety about their parents being deported than grappling with the deaths of their classmates. Those who are grieving fear their own mortality.

When and how will this happen to me?

(Page 8 of 8)

Tshumbi Johnson and Kanasha's cousin wrote a poem, "Here by day, gone by night," for her funeral, which they took turns reading to a packed sanctuary at the First Baptist Church in Immokalee. The year before she died, Tshumbi dated Kanasha and they still talked often.

Your jokes and laughter I still hear. You might be far away but to me you're still near. Pictures and signs of you still remain, life without you will not be the same. I want to say bye for now, cause one day we will be side by side!!!

He used to post on Facebook as if she was still here but not seeing comments back hurt too. He misses her chiding him, "Sit down" when he danced between classes. About twice a week, he visits her grave. One day after school, he sat beside it, wearing a Cincinnati shirt. He'll play college football there, but parts of his heart will remain in Immokalee.

He touched the flamin' hot Cheetos she loved left in the sand. He cleared twigs and pebbles. He stared at a laminated copy of the poem. He had read it to her twice, shared it more. He'll see her again, he believes, but only God knows when. He placed the poem near a sprig of silk roses. It was hers to keep.

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