On her first Mother’s Day without her only child, Maria Castillo mustered the strength to get out of bed and into the shower, where she wept.
In the kitchen, eight teenage boys and girls, friends of her son, cooked her breakfast. They added items to a bench, a makeshift shrine, with a few of her son’s favorite things: Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” A pair of lab safety glasses. A pocket-sized, dark-green Jeep — the same color and model as the one parked in the driveway.
“He was the perfect son,” said Maria, a small woman with a gentle smile. “He told me everything. He was my baby.”
Four days earlier, Maria and her husband John had lost their 18-year-old son, Kendrick Castillo, the sole fatality in the May 7 school shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Eight other students were injured in the attack. The two suspects are in custody.
Classmates say Kendrick charged one of the shooters to protect other students. That didn’t surprise the people closest to him.
“He was one of the most genuine and compassionate people I have ever met,” said Mike Shallenberger, an engineering teacher at STEM who taught Kendrick all four years of high school, as he sat on the Castillos’ back porch. “You don’t meet people like that but once in a lifetime.”
The afternoon of Mother’s Day, Maria stood near the front door of her southwest Denver home, tucked in a quiet neighborhood lined with modest single-family houses and spacious backyards. She softly greeted teenagers and parents and directed them to the living room, where John was telling stories of Kendrick to the intimate gathering.
Comfort food — trays of chocolate chip cookies, Kendrick’s favorite — and assortments of colorful flowers filled the kitchen and dining room.
They hugged. They cried. They honored Kendrick, a hero.
‘A lot of hopes and dreams’
Born March 14, 2001, Kendrick was an easy baby and boy with a loving temperament, his dad said. He was honest, not defiant. He respected his elders and always said “thank you,” “good morning” and “goodbye.”
His faith never wavered. Even at the fast-food Taco Bell restaurant, he would make sure to pray before eating.
“He respected and loved his mother so much,” said John, sitting on a chair on the back porch, tears welling in his eyes. “Any man in the world whose daughter ended up with Kendrick would, quite honestly, hit the man lottery.”
Kendrick’s love for robotics and engineering started early. As a young child he would dismantle his toys, inspecting every inner working, and put them back together in new formations. Whenever he’d get a new gadget, he’d invite his friends over to share in his excitement.
The father-son duo enjoyed weekend hunting trips, fishing trips and campouts. They never had much luck but that didn’t matter, as long as they were together. They spent many nights in the backyard, working on old cars. Kendrick loved cars.
Kendrick’s parents, who both work in the hotel industry — Maria is a chef and John a chief engineer — prioritized spending time with their son. Eating meals together was important. The three of them would sit on the couch in the evening and eat bowls of ice cream.
“I don’t know if I will ever be able to eat another bowl of ice cream again,” his father said.
Kendrick attended Notre Dame Catholic School in Denver for middle and elementary school. When it came to choosing a high school, he wasn’t thrilled with any of the local, neighborhood options, which had a large focus on traditional sports. His passion was engineering and electronics.
On his first tour of STEM, Kendrick was like a kid in a candy store, John said. He was especially enthralled with the expansive engineering room. The Castillo family applied for the charter school, which uses a lottery system for enrollment, and won.
“His face lit up ear-to-ear,” John said.
Kendrick was on two robotics teams and part of the school’s Technology Student Association. Even in high-pressure competitions, he would stop what he was doing to help other students, said Jordon Monk, one of his best friends, who was visiting Kendrick’s parents on Mother’s Day. Kendrick was a mentor, a friend to all.
After high school he planned to attend Arapahoe Community College for two years and then Colorado State University or the University of Colorado at Boulder. He wanted to be an electrical or mechanical engineer.
“He had a lot of hopes and dreams,” John said. “Most of his hopes and dreams always included the people he loved.”
When Monk wasn’t at his own house in Highlands Ranch, he was at Kendrick’s. The two would play video games, go for drives in Kendrick’s beloved Jeep and take a golf cart parked in the backyard for a spin. At school they’d often get the classroom off topic with their amiable banter.
“The only thing he loved more than his Jeep was the people inside,” Monk said. “Everyone went to him for help.”
‘We have to be better people’
John was eating lunch at a Chick-fil-A near his work at the Denver Tech Center on May 7 when a colleague texted: “Doesn’t Kendrick go to STEM? There is an active shooter.” He called his wife and raced to Northridge Recreation Center, where parents were being reunified with their children.
He parked in a nearby neighborhood, jumped a fence and scanned the crowd — his anxiety skyrocketing. Cop cars were everywhere. People were hysterical. He texted Kendrick and called over and over. No response.
John, who coached a robotics team at the school, used an app to try to get in touch with the group of kids. Names began popping up. They were safe, they wrote.
“Kendrick’s name never came up,” John said.
He and Maria caught word that Kendrick might be at a local hospital. A police officer raced them to Littleton Adventist, where they were pulled aside into a small room. A nurse asked them to provide any identifying factors of their son. He wore Ray-Ban reading glasses, John told the nurse. She said she was so sorry.
The Castillos went home that evening and collapsed on the couch in the spot where Kendrick used to lay.
“I felt like it wasn’t real,” John said. “We kept hoping we would hear his Jeep exhaust in the driveway.”
Part of him wishes his son would have run or hid, John said. But that wasn’t Kendrick. He was selfless, valiant. In the aftermath of tragedy, he would have wanted his parents to think about the teacher in that classroom, the students in that school, his dad said. Kendrick wouldn’t want them to think about his death.
As the STEM community tries to make sense of it all, John doesn’t want to see people blaming guns or the school building’s safety. The solutions are simpler than that, he said.
“We have to be better people,” he said. “If you are going to have kids in this world, you need to be all in.”
Shallenberger, Kendrick’s engineering teacher, echoed that sentiment. Now, more than ever, people need to put down their phones and be present.
“We just need to love each other,” Shallenberger said. “We need to reengage with one another.”
The grief is overwhelming for the Castillos, who say they feel like they’ve lost their purpose. What’s helping them heal is the strong support from the community. They want to hear stories of their son. They want those who knew Kendrick to reach out to talk.
They want their son to be remembered as the “extraordinary” young man he was.
“I’d like the world to know that he’s just not your normal person,” John said. “He is special.”
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