by Joon Kim, AVID Elective Teacher, Garden Grove High School, Garden Grove, CA
On September 24, 2013, at 11:43 pm, I got a haunting text from one of my former AVID students, saying that Justin Valdez, who was in my AVID ’12 class, was shot and killed in San Francisco. The devastating news spread the next day and our Garden Grove Community and AVID family grieved the loss of one of our most beloved and respected students.
The first time I met Justin Valdez was when he was in the eighth grade when I was commissioned by our superintendent to create a promotional poster campaign called “I’m Going to College.” I met him again when he came to high school, and each time, he struck me as All-American—clean-cut, handsome, well mannered, athletic, and confident. He was not simply involved in clubs—he saw them as causes. He didn’t just play sports—he represented his school with pride and passion. And this is why he usually emerged as a leader wherever he went. He was the captain of his swim team, the president of a very active, nationally ranked Environmental Club, and all the AVID teachers unanimously selected him as the AVID President. In his senior year, he was the runner-up for the Most Worthy Argonaut award—the most prestigious honor we bestow on a graduating senior in our school.
His credentials are impressive by any standard, but my respect and admiration for this young man reached new heights when he came in one day and asked me to help him with his personal statement. As I heard this story, I just sat there weeping. I had no idea of the things he had suffered as a child. I could not have imagined that he was taken from his parents in the fifth grade and became a ward of the court. I would never have guessed that our AVID class president, who was on the honor roll and participating in three AP classes was dyslexic and did not learn to read until the fifth grade. From meeting him, you would think he was born with a silver spoon—that he was afforded all the privileges of having rich, loving parents, and a supportive environment throughout childhood.
I would understand if Justin had given up after his parents failed him. No one would blame him if he became an embittered and angry young man after what he suffered. It would be completely understandable if he became aimless in life. But he rose from the ashes and was not only making something of himself but becoming an inspiration to everyone around him. We all loved and respected Justin, but it was not until his death that we saw the impact that he had in so many lives. Countless stories of how Justin loved them, helped them, stood up for them, and inspired them. The media reported how much he cared for the environment and the things he had done for the Environmental Club. All of those stories are true, but that is not why he was so well loved and remembered so fondly. It was because above all, Justin loved people and he was not afraid to show that. He loved every stereotype in high school—not just the athletes or his AVID family or the AP kids. He made sure you knew you mattered to him and he always went out of his way to show it.
Justin is a testament that people can overcome incredible obstacles. He has become a role model not only for our AVID students but for all students in our district. For his senior yearbook, he was voted, “Most Likely to Fight for Justice.” How fitting and ironic—that the one who experienced the most injustice is the one fighting most for justice—for himself and for others.
During the many vigils that were held, a large group of individuals spoke about how much he could have changed the world. Well, it’s not too late. His legacy and impact will not be forgotten. The Environmental Club that meant so much to him is recycling more than ever. The senior class is preparing a legacy in his honor. The Aquatics and AVID programs are setting up scholarships, and we are also in the process of setting up a non-profit organization called the Justin Valdez Memorial Scholarship.
Even though it has been months since we lost Justin, it is so important for us to stop and remember this shining star. It is important for us to recount and recall his brilliance, humor, kindness, and passion. In his short life, Justin’s bright light shined on so many people and continues to do so even after he is gone.