Kassandra “Kassy” Elizondo died in December 2015 in an ATV accident. (Courtesy photo)

Starting this school year, Silvia Elizondo began her new position as principal of La Joya’s Lorenzo de Zavala Middle School — a campus that five years ago, was too difficult for her to walk through.

In 2015, Elizondo was the school’s assistant principal and her niece, Kassandra Elizondo — Kassy— was a seventh grader there; much of their time together was spent at the hallways and classrooms of that school.

When Kassy died unexpectedly after a tragic ATV accident in December 2015, the grief was almost too much for her family to bear. She was 13, the baby of the family, the youngest of three.

Having to return to campus a few weeks later was painful for Elizondo. Every corner of that campus — every white and blue hallway, every bustling classroom — was a heartbreaking reminder that her sweet, adventurous niece was gone.

So in December 2016, she accepted a job as the T-STEM academy director at La Joya High School. Elizondo needed to heal, and to do so, she couldn’t be driving every morning to the place where Kassy spent most of her time.

After three-and-a-half years of working at that high school — three-and-a-half years of learning how to process her grief and accept life without Kassy — the Zavala Middle School principal post opened up.

“I felt in my gut that it couldn’t be anybody else but me.” Elizondo said. “I really felt like it was mine, that I really needed to go back and I really needed to be there for the kids and to do it in her memory.”

Half-way through her first school year as principal, she has not stopped thinking about Kassy while walking through the campus, but the memories don’t sadden her the way they used to. She’s now able to find comfort in them and reminisce fondly.

“I’m back and it’s different because I don’t feel the pain that I used to feel,” she said. “I walk down the halls and I feel this peace knowing that I am working at the place where she spent a lot of time in, and invested her talent. I’m walking down the halls she walked down, and walking through the gym where she danced and smiled and laughed.”

Having the strength to be able to return to campus, in no way, means Elizondo’s longing to have another moment with Kassy has subsided — it means she has found a way to channel her love for her niece. But it took time to get there.

“I think that I needed to leave to heal, and even when I left I knew that place would always hold a special place in my heart,” Elizondo said.

There are still many days when she misses her niece terribly; what Elizondo misses most about Kassy are the hugs she would give every time they ran into each other at school.

On difficult days when she misses Kassy more than usual, she fixates on this saying: “Our loved ones die the moment we forget about them.”

Anyone who knew Kassy knew she was ambitious. Just as a middle schooler, she wanted to follow her older sister’s footsteps and study architecture at Texas A&M University. And so to keep Kassy’s memory alive, Elizondo is making it her mission to foster a college-driven culture at Zavala.

“She was such a driven young little girl, and so I am going to make sure that the students of Zavala are inspired to have the same mindset she had,” Elizondo said. “I am doing this in her honor.”

Kassy was an active student on campus; she competed in UIL Spanish poetry, was a part of the school’s dance team and the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Elizibeth Elizondo places a photo of her daughter Kassy Elizondo on her grave at Lore & I Cemetery on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Palmview. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“One of the things I want to do as principal is help kids be as driven as Kassy was,” Elizondo said. “I knew she was set, she knew what she wanted to do. She knew her plans were to go to college and there was no doubt about that.

“And so I want that to be visible as you walk into my campus, I want to make sure students walking in any given hall can see that there is this college-going culture that inspires them to want to do more and pursue a higher degree.”

Kassy’s sudden death shocked her family, and it took time for them to find peace and healing; it took two days for her family to be able to leave the funeral home, and three months for her family to be able to step back into their home.

Instead of continuing their family tradition of watching a movie at a theater on Christmas Day, they slept over at the funeral home that year. The heartbreak of suddenly losing their cheerful, adventurous Kassy was so intense that they couldn’t leave.

Together, along with her parents and older brother and sister, more than a dozen of Kassy’s relatives — her cousins, tías and tíos — slept on the pews and floors of the Lord and I Funeral Home in Peñitas the nights of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that year. They embraced their last holiday with her.

She was buried on Dec. 26, 2015.

Facing grief, Elizondo said she and her family have learned, is a process that takes repetition.

“I think it’s never easy, and it’s never going to go away,” she said. “I think you just learn how to live with it. You do things to honor the loved ones that you lost and you do things that you know they would have wanted you to do and they themselves would have wanted to do.”

Another way Kassy’s family is making efforts to keep her memory alive is by hosting an annual toy drive for children at South Texas Health System Children’s hospital in Edinburg. Just a few months before the accident, Kassy turned 13 and decided she needed to let go of the stuffed animals she had and wanted to donate them to children who were sick.

Additionally, Kassy’s older sister, Yocelyn Elizondo was able to raise enough funds to have a room at the Valley Haven Emergency Children’s Shelter in Harlingen under Kassy’s name.