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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Flowers are arranged during a memorial for Gisselle Montaño, Luciana Tellez, and Esmeralda Nava at Eagle Point High School on Tuesday.

Celebration and mourning at Eagle Point funeral

For a brief period while the Eagle Point community mourned and honored three high school seniors Tuesday evening, even the sky itself over the stadium was blue and gold.

The underbellies of long clouds in the darkening sky glowing with the dwindling rays of sun matched the uniforms worn by Eagle Point High School weightlifting students, as they participated in the Mexican ritual of la guardia, standing beside the coffins where their classmates Gisselle Montaño, Luciana Tellez and Esmeralda Nava now rest.

A graduation robe belonging to each girl lay atop each smooth wooden box.

Behind them, portraits of the 18-year-olds edited by local artist Kala Malone to add angel’s wings to their photos stood on easels. In the 10 days since the young women were killed by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 5, Malone’s portraits have spread through social media; she said they spoke a better word about their legacies than anything she could say out loud.

Tuesday’s velorio, or wake, however, was a time when friends, counselors and teachers articulated the impacts of Montaño’s, Tellez’s and Nava’s lives in two languages and intimate detail.

Counselor Liz Fletcher recalled how each girl showed her care in their relationship with her. Montaño, she said, would often stop by her office to see if she needed anything, be it a coffee or a hug.

“How she found time to do this and earn all those college credits, I’ll never know,” she said.

Math teacher Keith Holcombe told how Nava had asked him to walk with her at graduation.

“Qué honor,” he said. “I was honored to know that she had chosen me.”

It seems each of the three friends had ways of making people remember her. Others had shared their stories before the funeral.

Stacy Sorenson, who coached Tellez on the high school’s soccer team, remembers her for her character.

“I put her on varsity because she worked so hard,” Sorenson said. “Anything I asked her to do, she said ‘Yes, Coach.’ ”

That included, Sorenson said, keeping herself benched during a particular game when her teammates (whose hair she would braid before each game) were playing well but she had not been in yet.

“‘Everybody’s doing well. That’s OK, coach — I’ll sit this one out,’” Sorenson remembered Tellez saying.

She’s told players that story ever since, she said, as an example of a team-oriented mindset.

To hear loved ones tell it, the girls’ multifaceted community service, academic and athletic achievements has helped spur the community forward in the wake of their abrupt deaths.

Across the valley, the weight of grief was rapidly channeled into momentum. Family, friends and strangers couldn’t bring the girls back — but they could work to support the families they left behind.

The list of fundraisers has grown daily as Spanish and English announcements circulated online and off. Wineries, fast-food restaurants, taquerias and ice cream shops donated 100 percent of sales, some for an entire day.

Truck clubs and students organized car washes and fruit cup sales. Some of the organizers and many customers have never met the girls or their families.

Orlando De La Cruz, however, has been connected to each family. He said his mind went to how he could help almost immediately after seeing the 3 a.m. text he received about the crash.

What started out as a yard sale has developed into a swap meet of sorts, and expanded to include food and drink vendors as well as live music.

De La Cruz said that the speed with which people reached out with ideas and offers to donate materials for the sale is in line with how tight-knit the White City community is — particularly the Latino families.

“Everybody knows who (the girls) are,” he said. “They deserve to be praised and celebrated for what they’ve done. We had to do something to help the families out.”

The White City Community Yard Sale/Swap Meet will run from

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 2 at White Mountain Middle School Field at 550 Wilson Way, White City.

The same bittersweet mixture of celebration of life and mourning over death rang through Tuesday’s service.

Almost every speaker mentioned that the girls had inspired them “to be a better person.”

“I will continue to keep these three present in the way I live my life,” said counselor Casey Olmstead. “Because for me, it has been one of the greatest honors to have known them, to have borne witness to their light, as we continue to shine their light.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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