Immokalee High School student and football player Tshumbi Johnson cleans up the grave of friend Kanasha Issac in Immokalee. Isaac is one of 10 Immokalee High students who have died in the past two years. She was shot outside of the Ale House in Fort Myers.
No child should be spending more time in a cemetery than with their friends, enjoying school and social events.
But in Immokalee, at least for the past two years, that is a daily occurrence. The small Collier County community of mainly migrant workers has been rocked with young death. Ten teenagers have died. The reasons are painful and graphic: suicide, car wrecks, murder, a drowning and the collapse of a popular athlete during a basketball game.
Their friends visit them at one of two graveyards in the community of 24,000. They talk to the dead, lay flowers and other items at grave sites and dream of what might have been. The conversations with the dead can be heart-wrenching, but they are very real.
“What’s up, Mike?” says Jose Arvizu, 20, kneeling before the grave of Michael Jon Perez in Immokalee’s Lake Trafford Memorial Gardens. He knew Michael since grade school. Arvizu has visited the grave nearly every day since Michael died May 30, 2011, in the same car crash that killed Perez’s girlfriend, Amanda Alvarado. They were 17. The couple share a headstone: “True Love. Together Forever.”
Arvizu straightened a vase full of pink silk flowers that had fallen. Sometimes, Arvizu visits the grave at night, hoping for something that won’t happen. But it is how we sometimes think, how young people think.
“If anybody comes out, I hope it’s Mike,” he tells his friends. “I’ll risk it.”
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It is hard for anyone in the town, especially at Immokalee High School, where eight of the victims attended, to comprehend this horrible stretch of fate.
This is no way for them to grow up, but it is the current reality for this small community that knows only how to take care of each other and work as hard as they possibly can to provide for their families.
Fortunately for those who are suffering, there is help. We applaud the community for recognizing that grieving at a young age is never easy and having someone to talk to is vital at a time when they seek answers. The school partnered with Avon Hospice of Collier to start a bereavement group during school. The David Lawrence Center also is helping as is the Young Life Christian Ministry for teenagers. Talking through the pain does provide relief and that is why these groups so important.
The grief workshops also allow children the opportunity to talk among themselves, share their concerns with people in their peer groups. It is important because adults do not always have the right answers and may not understand what teenagers are thinking.
We also are encouraged by how they are conducting these sessions as well, using art, writing and music in their workshops as well as encouraging the teenagers to bring in photos or mementos of the person they are remembering or grieving over. These workshops are precedent setting. Most have usually dealt with children dealing with the loss of a parent. They have never tried sessions where children were grieving over children. It is a significant step and one we hope is successful.
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None of the deaths can be explained to anyone’s satisfaction, but it is even more difficult to understand how two students, two young lovers, can take their own lives — the boy killing his girlfriend and then turning the gun on himself, according to investigators.
Those deaths provided a calling for Immokalee teacher Tracy Bowen and her need to reach out and try to understand what was happening. She organized a week of awareness on teen dating violence at the school, along with students in the Women Influence Club. Those in the mental health profession have seen far too many cases of young people taking their lives over a pact they made together. Bowen’s efforts for his school and his community speaks volumes about those who want to help and prevent such future tragedies.
Today’s compelling story by Janine Zeitlin also talked of the stress student’s face each day wondering whether or not their parents will be deported. It is a fact of life in Immokalee. Many adults may have come here legally but visas have expired and they are not U.S. citizens. Many of their children were born here, so they are automatically citizens. Many of the Immokalee adults are working the orange groves or other fields that surround this community. They provide not only for their families here but also for relatives in other countries.
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As Congress debates new immigration laws, we hope they keep the people of Immokalee front and center. There are no quick fixes to immigration, but offering hardworking illegal immigrants a quicker path to citizenship gives people in Immokalee hope that families will not be split. The answer is not amnesty. That law already has failed. The answer is a pathway that provides a reasonable route to citizenship, one that will take time but at least provides hope for those who worry about being forced to leave their children.
U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fort Myers, has talked that the immigration system can not be overhauled quickly and completely with one piece of legislation. That it must be done methodically and over time. We agree. But we urge Radel to keep the process moving forward. Immigration can’t stall now. Too much is at stake at our borders and in the homes of Immokalee.
A small town should never have to live through such a nightmare of death and the fear of separation. But any community’s strength is measured by how it rises above such tragedy and becomes stronger. We hope the community will continue keep its children front and center and work with them as they deal with such an emotional hardship.