In August, the community was rattled when 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove was killed by a peer at Washington Middle School in downtown Albuquerque. It happened while he was trying to de-escalate a violent situation. Bennie has since been hailed a hero not only by local police and his classmates but also by adults in the surrounding community. One of whom is Len Romano, the owner of Ripe Inc. and a board member for the West Downtown Business Group, an organization made up of local companies whose storefronts are located within blocks of the school.
Romano, along with other members of the community wanted to find a way to help the school. So, they came up with three ideas aimed at rebuilding the community. The first was a t-shirt for all the students and staff that says, “Washington Middle School Strong”. The shirts were designed by Romano’s shop which does graphic design for local companies like Marble Brewing and Taos Bakes. The second thing the group raised funds for, was to help show support for school staff. “The principal said that morale was really low and that the staff would appreciate the community letting them know that they are thinking of them, and how could we do that?” Romano asked, “We could send some lunches to them every month until the end of the year.” The West Downtown Business group raised enough funds to have Garcia’s Kitchen cater lunches for the teachers and staff in order to help bring them together. The school’s Principal, Modesta Hernandez says the lunches catered in by Garcia’s brought teachers together in a way they weren’t sure was possible again following the loss of a student. “It actually has brought unity to the staff,” she said, “we were lost and fallen, we were struggling, it gave us a place, to gather and to smile again.”
Also involved in the fundraising for these projects is the Huning Castle Neighborhood Association which donated $2,000 right off the bat. Board member Rudy Garcia says together the groups came up with a third idea: to build a Tree Sanctuary at the school where kids can spend time outside, express themselves and begin to heal. The project is scheduled to break ground at the school this spring when the project will go one step further. Kids will work with science faculty to help design the space based on water needs, sustainability, and noninvasive species. Romano says that way, kids can take ownership of the project. “We could easily go and put trees in,” he said, “but we want the kids to be involved. And feel like they are doing something meaningful. I think that’s important, everyone’s shocked by this.”
The Huning Castle Neighborhood Association along with the West Downtown Business group plan to continue their work with Washington in the form of guest speaker series continued donations, and simply by showing that the community hears them and wants to help. Since the creation of the Washington Strong t-shirts, Principal Hernandez says the school has adopted a new motto: to grow in kindness, caring, and love.