HIGHLAND RANCH — With tears running down his cheeks, a STEM School Highlands Ranch teacher presented the first blue and white honor cords of the technology student honor society to a 2019 graduating senior.
Instead of draping them around a student’s neck, teacher Mike Shallenberger stepped off a church’s stage and draped the cords across Kendrick Castillo’s casket. He then hugged Castillo’s parents, John and Maria, during a memorial service for the 18-year-old senior who died trying to protect his classmates from a school shooter.
Nearly 3,000 people — friends, family, community members, faith leaders and robotics teams from across the area — at Cherry Hills Community Church shared stories, tissues and hugs as they commemorated a brilliant high school student who had the rare ability to put a smile on the face of everyone he met.
Shallenberger spoke about Castillo, who was a quick study and who often knew more than his teacher. Castillo demonstrated loads of patience when he struggled to figure out the mechanics behind a project, and he always was willing to help classmates with their projects.
Robotics were a huge part of Castillo’s life, and a former classmate and teammate talked about how he trusted Castillo from the moment he joined the team as a freshman. Dakotah Mann also spoke of his friend’s love of the outdoors and off-roading in Jeeps.
“The world we live in is one he helped create. And while it is a poor substitution, we know he is here for us through every single day,” Mann said. “No matter how small his influence on each and every one of us, we have love in our hearts that he chopped, riveted and welded together. You all know his name — Kendrick Castillo. He died for us. Now, it’s time for us to live for him.”
John Castillo said it was no surprise that his son took the brave actions he did that day in his English class. Fellow classmates have said that Kendrick Castillo was the first of three seniors to jump from their seats and charge a shooter to stop the attack.
That’s just who Kendrick was, his father said.
“We can all be Kendrick,” Castillo said. “When you strip people down, there’s Kendrick underneath.”
He said his son realized early on, quicker than most people do, that it wasn’t about the prized elk they were hunting on their father-son trips into the woods. It was about the adventure.
“He never lost his innocence,” Castillo said.
Strong themes of faith coursed through Wednesday’s service, a reflection of the Castillos’ devout Catholic roots. Interspersed with stories from friends and family, the community somberly joined together for hymns. The Rev. Kevin S. Cho, who said his son learned everything he knows about robotics from Kendrick Castillo, led the room in a chorus of “This Little Light of Mine.”
The leaflet handed out as the community entered the service featured a smiling picture of Castillo with a quote from John 15:13. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.”
Castillo’s legacy could be seen everywhere at Wednesday’s ceremony. On the sidewalk leading up to the church, 15 robotics teams from across the region donned their team shirts and displayed their mechanical creations adorned with signs saying “More Than Robots” and “Peace, Love, Robotics #Kendrick Castillo.”
A table outside the chapel featured a collection of Castillo’s favorite things: a copy of “Talladega Nights”, a Wayne’s World hat — part of a costume he wore with his best friend, Jordan Monk. There were blue and red science ribbons, and a kayak loomed behind the speakers on stage.
“Kendrick would have loved today,” said Jeff Lamb, a robotics mentor who is close with the Castillos. “He was probably in there in spirit.”
As Mann stood at the podium, he said he was overcome by how many people — some he knew, many he didn’t — came to honor his friend.
“I just hope that people know Kendrick’s name and legacy aren’t going away any time soon,” Mann said after the ceremony.
Before the service, hundreds of Jeeps rolled toward the church in honor of Castillo, a Jeep enthusiast. Yellow and blue sashes — the STEM School colors — dangled from side mirrors. Others painted #STEMStrong and “Thank you Kendrick” on their rear windows. Three war veterans held giant American flags in front of the line of cars, which stretched more than a half mile down Colorado Boulevard.
A procession of Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies and other law enforcement officials led a formal procession to the church — the first time the sheriff’s office did so for a civilian. It’s an honor normally reserved for fallen officers, but Castillo’s actions warranted something greater, sheriff’s spokeswoman Cocha Heyden said.
“This was an 18-year-old who just wanted to go to school that day and paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Heyden said. “Law enforcement officers sign up to do that; we sign up to take that risk. A school-age kid doesn’t. We felt it was the least we could do to honor Kendrick.”
Lamb said he choked up several times during the day. The first came when the procession made the first turn and he saw firefighters lining the street, standing at attention.
“That tore me apart,” Lamb said as he watched Castillo’s body drive past. “It was just amazing.”
Just before the memorial began, Gov. Jared Polis declared Wednesday Kendrick Castillo Day in Colorado. “Rest In Peace, Kendrick. Your bravery won’t be forgotten,” the governor tweeted. Polis also changed his Twitter profile picture to one of Castillo.
I declare today Kendrick Castillo Day in Colorado as we remember the life of the 18-year-old hero who died saving others in last week's STEM School shooting in Highlands Ranch.
Rest In Peace, Kendrick. Your bravery won't be forgotten. pic.twitter.com/erjvq4qAr9
— Jared Polis (@GovofCO) May 15, 2019
Castillo was sitting at his desk watching a movie May 7 when a classmate entered his 12th-grade British literature class, pulled out a gun and said, “Nobody move.” Castillo, along with his two friends, instead leaped out of his chair to confront the shooter. The 18-year-old died of his gunshot wounds, while eight other students were injured.
The attack — Colorado’s fourth school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre 20 years ago — shocked the suburban community, sending terrified parents rushing to pick up their children, some as young as 5 years old.
Castillo’s friends, Brendan Bialy and Josh Jones, have recounted the split-second decisions the three of them took May 7 to prevent further bloodshed. They have called their friend a true hero and have said he was the first to confront the teen gunman. Jones suffered two gunshot wounds during his actions, while Bialy escaped unscathed.