Purple was 13-year-old Larissa Estrada’s favorite color. And that’s why Hobbton Middle School was awash in it Monday, as students and faculty, alike, dressed in hues of that color and held balloons of like shades, all as a loving tribute to the young lady they loved and are now mourning following a tragic family incident over the weekend.
Poster paper with handwritten notes to Estrada dotted the walls of the school Monday, colorful purple and white balloons were launched into the cloudy afternoon sky and yellow ribbons blew gently in the wind from a tree where students hung them, their way of showing love to a girl principal Kevin Hunter said was well liked by everyone at the middle school.
“She was an outstanding young lady, always happy and outgoing,” Hunter said. “Every time I saw her, she’d always smile at me and say ‘good morning, Mr. Hunter.’ She had a way about her that made you feel better just by being in her presence.”
The eighth-grader died Sunday after being on life support since Friday night, suffering from an apparent gunshot wound, a blow that law enforcement officers believe was delivered by her father, who was found dead in his Hunter Road home around 7 p.m. Friday night.
A brief report released by sheriff’s officers Monday afternoon noted that though lab results are still pending, investigators believe Estrada’s father “intentionally” shot his daughter and then took his own life.
Estrada was discovered by her brother, who went to his father’s residence when the teenager didn’t come home at the expected time. According to sheriff’s officers, the brother discovered his father dead in the home and his sister slumped over, suffering from what appeared to be a gunshot wound.
The brother called 911 and then put his sister in his vehicle and started to transport her to Sampson Regional Medical Center. He stopped when he saw a responding ambulance, flagged them down and allowed rescue workers to transport her the remainder of the way.
The teenager was transferred to an area medical center, where she was placed on life support.
The personable Estrada, Hunter said, would be greatly missed by the Hobbton Middle family.
Students, he said, had been visibly shaken by the news of their friend’s death, particularly the eighth-graders with whom she had the closest association.
“The sixth and seventh-graders have been impacted somewhat, particularly those who knew her well, but our eighth-graders have been hit a lot harder.”
Because emotions were running high, Hunter said counselors and ministers were in the school’s media center throughout Monday, available to any student who wanted to talk or share their feelings.
“Our teachers, too, are here to help in any way they can, if a student wants to reach out to them,” Hunter said.
In addition, Hunter said he and the staff had put poster paper in the hallways, giving students a place that they could write messages to the young girl or notes to her mother, as well as ribbons, where messages could be written.
“And some of the students got together over the weekend and decided to wear purple today. They got that started. Purple was Larissa’s favorite color and they thought it would be a nice way to honor her.”
Hunter, himself dressed in a purple shirt and purple striped tie, helped his students hang the yellow ribbons Monday afternoon, resting a comforting hand on those who welled up with emotions as they secured their note to a tree in front of the school.
Many of the students openly cried as they fastened the ribbons in place and then stepped back to let others do the same. Some held tightly to their friends, hugging them close in comfort, using words like “it’ll be all right,” or “I miss her too,” in shared grief.
Once every student in grades 6-8 had the opportunity to hang a message from the tree, eighth-graders made their way to the school’s soccer field where faculty members delivered huge bags of purple and white balloons. Each student was given one, which they gripped tightly, some with eyes downcast.
Teachers, many with tears running down their cheeks, grasped balloons, too, and focused their attention on Hunter who made his way inside a large circle that students had formed.
“This is a healing process,” Hunter told the youngsters. “Today we’ve lost a dear, dear friend, but you need to remember this — no one can take away the memories you have of her. Cherish them. And, remember, too, that the best way to honor her is for you to live each day to the fullest; make the most you can of each day.”
Stanley King, computer lab facilitator at the school, then entered the circle, sharing his condolences with the students.
“This is tragic, to have someone taken from us like this, and we are going through a lot of terrible emotions. But it’s OK to mourn. The fact that you mourn is a way to honor your friend.”
Hearts, he said, were broken, and questions were being asked, anger felt. “But we know Larissa’s character and we know that the best way to honor her is by remembering the joy she brought into our lives.”
King said he didn’t know Estrada personally but had learned a lot about the teen from the words of her friends, expressed as grieving middle-schoolers talked about their friend with counselors and social workers throughout the day.
“Listening to you, I found out that she was a great girl, someone who had a unique laugh, a silly little dance and a winning spirit.”
Students smiled as they listened to King recall their friend, some stepping out to show off her dance at the facilitator’s prodding.
“It’s the laughter we need to hang on to, the joy she brought, the love she shared,” he stressed.
Touching briefly on the probe, he acknowledged that there were a lot of unanswered questions. And he recalled, while on car duty, often seeing Estrada being picked up by her father. “A lot of times her father would pick her up, and I’d see her get in that car, smiling. And I’d see her lean over and kiss her father on the cheek. It was obvious she loved her father very much.
“No matter the things we don’t really understand, it was clear that she loved her father,” King stressed.
He called for a moment of silence, interrupted only by muffled sniffles, and finally, a prayer before he sang a few lines from “Jesus Loves Me.”
At the end, everyone’s eyes turned skyward as the students and faculty, some reluctantly, let go of their balloons and watched them soar toward the heavens.
“She will be missed so much,” one student said as she clung to another, tears rolling down her face as she watched a final, lone purple balloon free itself from a nearby tree and head toward heaven, a fitting final goodbye to their friend.