Student finds support after unspeakable tragedy

September 16, 2019
Sept. 7, 2013 was the worst day of young Leo Chavez’s life. He was just 6 years old when his father stabbed his mother, Martha Casillas, to death at their home while Leo was watching television in the other room. “It was heartbreaking,” Edenvale Elementary Principal Ryan Haven said. “You don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to console a child. You know that they’re going to need a lot of encouragement and support.” Leo and his older brother, Mario, were left in the care of their 22-year-old sister, Katia. But Haven recognized it would take the entire Edenvale community stepping up to help Leo grieve the loss of his mother. “One of the things that I remember many times kind of mentally committing myself to, and I think a lot of people on our staff did the same thing, is saying, ‘Leo is our kid,’” Haven said. “‘We’re going to see him through. We’re gonna walk with him through this. He’s not alone. And we’ve got him.’” In the weeks and months that followed, Leo struggled to control his emotions. After all, he grew up in a house where he constantly saw violence.  “At first it was hard because he got in a lot of trouble here at school,” Katia said. “Fighting. Hitting girls. Getting mad so easily. Didn’t listen.” Leo battled with bouts of depression during the first few years. Haven admits there were stretches of silence, made harder by the fact that Leo was an English language learner. “Although we have tons of staff who speak Spanish, he’s trying to figure out the English language as well as the vocabulary to describe his feelings,” Haven said. “And he’s mad. And I think there was a lot of anger that he went through.” Yolanda Guerra was the school’s health clerk. She made it her mission to take Leo under her wing and help him find peace in the midst of grief. “He would tell me that Ms. Yolanda was his second mom,” Edenvale Elementary teacher Jacqui Murbach said. “That was his second mom that he would go to for everything. She would make sure that she fed him in the mornings. Ms. Yolanda definitely kept track of him.” In February 2019, Guerra died after a battle with leukemia. Once again, Leo had lost an important figure in his life. “He’s held it together really well,” Murbach said. “If I was in his situation, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it in the way that he did. He grieved in all the right ways. He talked to people in all the right ways. It’s almost because he had that past trauma experience that he was able to handle Ms. Yolanda passing so well.”

“He knows he has a home here.”
‒Ryan Haven, Edenvale Elementary School Principal
Through it all, Leo Chavez recognizes his success. And he is quick to credit the Edenvale community for helping him overcome such an unspeakable tragedy. “It feels amazing,” Leo said. “I’ve been here for seven years now. And it’s been a real journey.” And while he is moving on from Edenvale Elementary as he enters seventh grade, Haven says Leo’s school family is not far away. “He knows he has a home here,” Haven said. “He knows he has a home at Edenvale. He knows he can come here and that he will get support.”
When Leo Chavez’s mother was murdered, he found support to cope with the loss at his school.

© 2019 Association of California School Administrators