Mourning Leah

June 10, 2005

Mourning Leah

By Jennifer Squires
Ashland Daily Tidings

Leah Castillo celebrates during the graduation ceremony on June 3 just hours before she was killed in a car accident.
(Click here for the photo gallery tribute: Loving Leah)

Submitted photo

With an IQ in the top 97 percentile, an $86,000 scholarship propelling her to Arizona State, an artistic zest for life and a compassionate spirit, Leah Castillo was remembered Thursday as the “perfect” student, child, sister and companion. She was a shy person by nature but could be adventurous and outgoing when the situation called for it. She was a compassionate friend who also enjoyed gossip about cute guys. She was her mother’s “best friend” and acted as a second mother to her little sister, Sophia.

Castillo was a college-bound 18-year-old determined to have an impact on her world who was killed hours after she graduated from Ashland High School on June 3. She was driving from her home in Talent to the senior all-night party when a Chevy Blazer driven by 19-year-old Jonathan Guevarra of Eagle Point slammed head-on into Leah’s Nissan Sentra on North Main Street, killing her instantly.

Family, community members and Ashland High students and staff gathered Thursday morning to pay tribute to Leah. They chose to remember most everything — Leah’s desire to travel, love of languages, the way she danced, and how she wore progressively shorter haircuts — except her final hours of graduation night.

Caitlin Therien, the mother of Leah Castillo, spoke at her daughter’s memorial service Thursday at Ashland High School’s main gym.

Robert Petetit | For the Tidings

“She was a bright soul who made life fun,” said Ashtyn Steele, a good friend of Leah’s who helped organize the memorial service, which drew approximately 700 people to the AHS main gym.

As family members, students, AHS staff and community members trickled in, a single white pillar candle flickered in front of two flower arrangements and a wooden podium.

Kind words

Photos of Castillo from graduation, dancing in Spanish class and participating in a school trip to Spain were shown on a projection screen again and again with all eyes locked on the display. Only the occasional cough, sniffle or stumble disrupted the silence until Reverend Patt Herdklotz, of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universialist Fellowship, started the two-hour service.

“I miss having her having her next to me because she was with me every day,” Castillo’s mother Caitlin Therien said after the service. “It was just good having her near and feeling her energy.”

Therien said she considered her daughter her best friend and thanked the community for coming together to honor her.

“Leah looks like a movie star” in this 2002 photo, godmother Gina Lindow said.

Photo courtesy of Caitlin Therien

Castillo was very close to her younger sister, Sophia Therien-Smith, who will turn 11 on June 17 and just completed the fifth grade at Walker Elementary School. She looked to Castillo as both a mother and a sister, according to Therien.

“Leah would help Sophia with her homework and read to her,” Therien said. “[She would] nurture her and take her to school, and give her encouragement.”

At the end of the service, others came forward to share their favorite memories of Castillo, who was born in Phoenix, Ariz., on April 3, 1987 to Therien and the late Jorge Castillo. They stood in front of the microphone, many pausing to wipe away tears as they spoke.

Lysette Ballard, who had acted with Castillo in Camelot Theater’s 2002 production of “The Children’s Hour,” talked about how lucky she was to have bumped into Leah at the mall weeks prior to her death.

“I feel fortunate that I was able to see her,” said Ballard, 20, before giving a stack of poetry she had written about her friend to Therien.

“She taught me to take chances, to enjoy life,” said Devin Smith, Therien’s former husband who had spent a lot of time with Leah when she was a child. “She will always have my love.”

Steele laughed about Castillo’s love of pasta (especially spaghetti), obscure movies and music. She cried when she shared a story about Leah riding the Zipper — a carnival ride that spins people in cages while the whole mechanism goes around in a circle — with her, even though Castillo didn’t want any part in rides that go upside-down.

“She was the best big sister you could hope for,” Steele said, explaining Castillo had shared half of her bedroom with the friend for three months when Steele needed a place to stay. “I know, because she was mine.”

A lasting memorial

AHS principal Jeff Schlecht shared words from two teachers and a school counselor, as well as excerpts from Castillo’s final paper for her Spanish 4 class.

“My Heart is broken,” said Ashland High School Principal Jeff Schlecht during the memorial service for Leah Castillo, Class of 2005, who was killed just hours after graduation on June 3.

Robert Petetit | For the Tidings

In the paper, the 2005 graduate wrote her biggest weakness is fear. She was scared she wouldn’t be successful and worried she wouldn’t find her place in the world. She advised others to determine their priorities early and participate in a variety of activities.

“It’s important to discover a balance between the fun and the practical,” wrote Castillo, who intended to spend two weeks in Costa Rica this summer before beginning classes at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. She wanted to become a nurse and someday travel the world. She had spent time in Spain, Italy and Greece during previous summers and worked at a multicultural camp for youth because she believed diversity was important.

Castillo had been a member of the choir her junior year, a nun in the school’s production of “The Sound of Music” as a sophomore, and a soccer player her freshman year.

“Leah was a bright shinning star,” Schlecht said, highlighting Leah’s high grade point average — a 3.7 overall GPA — maturity and humanitarian nature. “Leah can no longer fulfill her dreams, so those dreams become our task.”

The AHS staff established a memorial scholarship fund in Castillo’s honor this week. The scholarship, which will be first awarded to a Class of 2006 graduate, will go to a student who shares characteristics with Leah. A private donor is also working to create a college fund for Leah’s sister, Sophia Therien-Smith. For more information, contact the high school at 482-8771.

The family will hold a private service for Castillo next week.

Staff writer Jennifer Squires can be reached at 482-3456 x 3019 or [email protected].

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