Students and faculty at Tyler ISD and the greater East Texas community are mourning the loss of a beloved Jack Elementary School student.
Ten-year-old Kayla Gomez-Orozco is remembered by her teachers, classmates and family as a beautiful soul, a sweet girl who smiled easily and often and who was a friend to everyone.
Kayla was found deceased Saturday after going missing for four days. After Kayla's disappearance last Tuesday, Tyler ISD brought in additional counselors to help students deal with the trying situation.
The school hosted a prayer vigil Sunday evening, where hundreds gathered to say an emotional farewell to their friend and classmate.
Families arrived wearing pink - Kayla's favorite color - and brought flowers, balloons and other tokens they laid in an impromptu memorial at the front of Jack Elementary, where the school flag had been lowered in her honor.
In a tearful speech, Kayla's father, Efrain Gomez, thanked the community for their love and support and described through a translator how 10 years ago, he and his family were blessed with Kayla's arrival.
"Every day was a precious day with her," he said.
"When she disappeared for four days, hundreds and hundreds of people gathered together to help find her, to console the family, to pray together," the translator said.
Gomez said he's a believer in God and understands that Kayla was here with a purpose, with a mission. And although he can't say exactly what it was that she was destined to do, he did see the power of her influence "in being able to have you all here tonight."
Gomez also described how every morning, he'd wake up and carefully prepare for work so as not to wake Kayla. But "someway, somehow, she would feel his energy and would catch up to her father, who would be praying and join him in his morning prayer."
"He has seen the power, the determination, the commitment that the students, the faculty, the administrators and the community has had, and he is thankful," the translator said. "The family is thankful for everyone who has been here to help."
Other speakers included Tyler ISD board member Pastor Fritz Hager and Principal Patricia Henderson.
The crowd sang "Amazing Grace" together and lit candles in her honor, and balloons were released just as drizzle started to fall from the night sky.
Prior to the vigil, Superintendent Marty Crawford said the district hopes to help parents guide their children through their grief.
“It’s hard to explain and I think that’s the toughest thing to do,” Crawford said. “As adults I think we can handle, emotionally, tragedy like this, but when you talk about children dealing with this, it’s a lot more complicated.”
Crawford is in the difficult position of being both the head administrator for the district and the parent of a student at Jack.
“It does take a little bit of extra work at home as a dad,” he said. “It goes in different directions. It goes from a child maybe not understanding to maybe projecting some of those emotions.”
Over the coming days and weeks, the district will help guide students and faculty deal with emotions surrounding this tragedy.
“I think tonight is the beginning of that process,” Crawford said. “Hopefully, it’ll bring some relief.”
The district also has made resources available online for parents under the counseling tab on school’s home page.
Jack PTA President Elicia Eckert, who said she first met a Kayla when she was in her daughter's kindergarten class, said the community is struggling to process this loss, and she needed to ask for help, as well.
“I don’t think we can cope with this, it’s hit so close to home,” she said. “It’s been tough, there’s been grief."
Eckert said she called the school’s counselor on Saturday to ask for help explaining the situation to her children.
She said she was very direct and carefully presented the facts.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done as a parent,” she said. “There’s no right reaction. We just have to be there for them and love them.”
NOTES FROM SUNDAY'S LIVE COVERAGE
Tyler Morning Telegraph reporter Cory McCoy covered the vigil live on twitter at @TM_Cory. Here's a sampling of that reporting:
Hundreds gathered at Jack Elementary for a prayer vigil for the family of Kayla Gomez-Orozco, whose body was discovered Saturday night.
Superintendent Mary Crawford opened the prayer vigil saying it was a somber occasion that he hoped would help bring healing.
"It's a sad reason to gather," Crawford said as he opened the prayer vigil. "Hopefully, this evening will allow you to have some closure to this tragedy."
Hundreds are already gathered with buses continuing to bring in mourners to honor Kayla Gomez-Orozco at Jack Elementary pic.twitter.com/xQ1LgHhjyQ— Cory McCoy (@TMT_Cory) November 6, 2016
Crawford turned the program over to school board member Pastor Fritz Hager, who offered a brief message, which was translated in Spanish.
"We gather here tonight to express our love for Kayla Gomez-Orozco, her family, classmates, teachers, the first responders to anwered the call to come help find a little girl who was lost," Hager said.
School board member the Rev. Fritz Hager follows Superintendent Marty Crawford speaking at the vigil, also being translated in Spanish pic.twitter.com/l5xQ2Cj6Bx— Allison Pollan (@TMT_Allison) November 6, 2016
"We've come from different places, different communities, even different races and languages," Hager said. "We're from Tyler, Bullard, Whitehouse, Flint. We're Texans, maybe even some from other states here today. But while we represent different communities, we are united in our grief over the death of a girl who did not deserve her fate."
Kayla's favorite color pink is on display at the prayer vigil at Jack Elementary, where she was in 4th grade pic.twitter.com/r3l6MOueEW— Allison Pollan (@TMT_Allison) November 6, 2016
Hager said the community has "cried, prayed, begged and bargained" over the last few days and is raw over the outcome of losing Kayla.
"We have cried out," Hager said. "And yet, here we are, and Kayla is not."
Students and faculty are laying flowers in memory of Kayla Gomez-Orozco pic.twitter.com/5Ev12IQFLC— Cory McCoy (@TMT_Cory) November 6, 2016
Hager asked the crowd where do we turn no, where do we find hope now that the unspeakable has happened, now that we have seen first hand unspeakable depth of evil.
He directed the crowd to the prophet Jeremiah for hope and an example of how to trust God even while experiencing great pain.
"Jeremiah chooses to worship. He looks to his creator and says the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His steadfast mercies never end. They are new every morning," Hager quoted.
Jeremiah's pain and grief eventually had an end, but the mercies of God never end," Hager said, quoting Lamentations 3:22-23.
"Despite unimaginable, unspeakable evil, greater is God's faithfulness," Hager said. "How great is God's faithfulness.
"So that's my prayer today ... for those who are grieving and hurt and maybe without hope, my prayer is that you've come to uncderstand evil in a deeper, more personal way, but that you would also come to know the mercies of God in a deeper, more personal way."
Jack Principal Patricia Henderson spoke and said Kayla is and will always be a beautiful soul.
She was followed by Jack PTA president who described Kayla as a joy to everyone she encountered. She said Kayla smiled easily and often and was a friend to everyone."
"Kayla may no longer sit in our classrooms, but she will always reside in our hearts, and she will always be a Jack Patriot," she said.
Prior to the vigil, families began arriving early and placing flowers and items on the school grounds.
Impromptu memorial in front of Jack Elementary, where the school flag has been lowered in honor of Kayla Gomez-Orozco pic.twitter.com/nNkgab1iza— Allison Pollan (@TMT_Allison) November 6, 2016
As darkness began to fall over the crowd, Kayla's father took the podium and described how 10 years ago, he and his family were blessed with Kayla's arrival.
"Every day was a precious day with her," he said through a translator.
Darkness falls as the vigil for Kayla continues with remembrances of a sweet and happy child pic.twitter.com/x8U3gkQzkR— Allison Pollan (@TMT_Allison) November 6, 2016
After Kayla's father spoke, the crowd began lighting candles and sang Amazing Grace.