Leslie was so proud to be a full-fledged cheerleader that for the first several weeks she wouldn’t take off her uniform until it was so dirty it had to be washed.
So it was only fitting that Leslie wear the uniform on Tuesday, the day she was laid to rest.
“That’s all she ever wanted to be – a cheerleader,” Moreno Middle School seventh-grader Paige Beltran said after her best friend’s funeral. “She was a cheerleader at 5, the team’s mascot, and she couldn’t wait to become a real cheerleader. I think she would have wanted it, have wanted to be buried in her cheerleader uniform.”
Leslie was killed in a one-vehicle accident Thursday afternoon on FM 888 some three miles south of Beeville when her mom, Terri, lost control of the SUV they were riding in and it flipped.
Terri, 41, a teacher at Hampton-Moreno-Dugat Early Childhood Center in Beeville, was severely injured in the accident and had to be flown by helicopter to an area hospital.
Leslie, who was 13, was pronounced dead at the crash site.
By Friday morning, students, faculty and staff at the middle school were in a state of shock and disbelief.
The central office dispatched additional counselors to help students deal with their grief. Local clergymen also arrived to help children sort through their feelings.
Teachers at Moreno said Leslie was a good student and was popular with everyone she met.
“She was always happy, always smiling,” said eighth-grader Skylar Nelson, who is also a cheerleader. “She liked everyone she met, and everyone she met liked her”
Anisa Cantu of Beeville, a seventh-grader at Moreno, said Leslie loved to laugh and make others laugh.
“She was crazy. She would do crazy things just to make you laugh,” Anisa recalled.
Anisa said Leslie was quick to speak her mind.
“She wasn’t scared to speak out. She’d say exactly what was on her mind,” Anisa said. “That’s one of the things I liked most about her. She let you know what she thought about things.”
And what she thought about others.
“She didn’t believe in cliques,” Paige said. “She liked everyone. She wouldn’t hang around just one group. She would talk to people in every group.”
And, Anisa recalled, when Leslie’s friends advised her to stay away from the new kid — the outcast — she would walk right up and say, ‘Hi, my name’s Leslie; what’s yours?’ She said they were people, too.”
Teachers said Leslie was a model student who was always helpful and respectful and whose daily presence reminded them why educating students was worthwhile.
After school on Friday, students and faculty and staff came together in the parking lot for a candlelight vigil in Leslie’s memory. Joined by their parents and other members of the community touched by Leslie in one way or another, more than 400 people held hands and prayed for Leslie, her mom and her father, Mitchell.
Over the weekend, Leslie’s classmates held a benefit car wash and bake sale to help offset the funeral arrangements. Leslie’s friends say they received more than $6,800 from well-wishers only too eager to help out.
At the funeral Tuesday, every seat on every pew at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Beeville was taken, as was every inch of wall space. Indeed, so many attended the service that dozens of people were forced to wait outside the chapel.
Father Patrick Donohoe noted the large attendance and attributed it to Leslie’s unifying presence in life and in death.
“We come here today to celebrate Leslie’s celebration of life,” he told the gathering. And he assured them that Leslie’s devotion and faith to her Lord had earned her a place in heaven she had long coveted.
Those who found room inside the cathedral alternately laughed and sobbed as a slide viewer projected photographs of Leslie on a large overhead screen.
“On the arms of an angel, fly away from here...” a soloist sang.
Leslie’s fellow cheerleaders, with whom she had shared so many fun times, wore their uniforms as a tribute to their friend.
Later, at Evergreen Cemetery in Skidmore, Leslie’s final resting place, the cheerleaders released pink and purple balloons into the air. A crowd of several hundred craned their heads as the balloons swirled skyward in the breeze.
One balloon, a pink one, snagged on the top of a tree. The wind pulled at the balloon, but it held fast until the last mourner departed. Then, the balloon tugged its tether free and rose into the air. Gathering speed and height, the balloon soared northwest, toward Beeville.
It passed over the site where five days earlier Leslie had lost her life.
Hundreds of feet below the balloon, on the site of the roadway, friends had erected a makeshift cross at the accident site and had placed wreaths, a teddy bear and a portrait of Leslie. A small, plastic cheerleader’s megaphone — the kind cheerleaders toss to fans during football and basketball games — was also left. It was signed by her cheerleader friends.
“We will love you and miss you a lot,” said one girl. “Remember to cheer in heaven,” a second student wrote.