As she has done almost every morning for the past year, Nicole Clavo woke up on Sunday thinking about her son.
Some days, she has cried alone in her car as she drove to work. Some days, she has shut the door to her office and quietly grieved. This Sunday, she picked up a bouquet of flowers and headed to J.J.’s grave.
It had been 366 days in this leap year of 2016 since Jaulon “J.J.” Clavo, a Grant High School senior and football player, was gunned down at a stoplight about two miles from campus as he and four teammates returned from a pregame meal. At her boy’s gravesite in the early morning sunlight, his mother talked to him and played gospel music. Later, she headed to Grant for a service in honor of a young man whose death galvanized a Del Paso Heights community of mothers, young people, teachers and others.
At the service in the same gym where J.J. and others watched basketball games and attended pep rallies, Clavo helped lead a ceremony that was part celebration, part somber memorial, part call to action.
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By all accounts, J.J. was not his killer’s target and did not engage in activities – not gang life, gun play or drug abuse – that put him at risk of violence. He was, police have said, a truly innocent victim. His alleged killer, whom police have linked to gang activity, was 16, a year younger than J.J., at the time of the killing. Keymontae Lindsey has been charged as an adult in Sacramento Superior Court.
In the frantic minutes after J.J. was shot, his buddies drove him to Grant High, where the life bled from his body as a staff member with some emergency response experience desperately tried to keep him alive. On Sunday, Nicole Clavo and more than 200 others filed past that spot and into the gymnasium, which was decorated with metallic balloons in the Pacer colors of blue and gold and photographs of a young man who doted on his family, held his friends close and dreamed of playing college football.
This is my son’s first heavenly birthday. It is his first year as an angel.
Nicole Clavo, mother of a high school senior gunned down a year ago
“One thing about the people in this neighborhood,” said Clavo, her eyes reflecting strain before the ceremony began, “they truly live the concept of family, and they brought me into their family. Their support is unwavering, and I will be forever grateful for that.”
Clavo dispensed hugs and gamely agreed to media interviews as women in church clothes, men in suits, gangly youths and little girls clutching dolls filled up the bleachers.
“This,” she said, “is my son’s first heavenly birthday. It is his first year as an angel.”
The heavenly birthday party began with a slide show that documented J.J.’s life, from a tiny newborn to a muscular football player. Frozen in time, J.J. posed for pictures at dances, graduations, goofy get-togethers with friends, holidays with family.
“As parents, one of our biggest fears is that one day we will have to bury our own child,” said speaker Paris Dye, a friend of the Clavo family, after the slide show. She implored youngsters in the audience to do whatever they could to “keep J.J.’s name alive” and use it to help make the world a kinder, more understanding place.
For J.J.’s closest friends and teammates, several of whom sat with Clavo in the front row of Sunday’s ceremony, “the world stopped” on the day he was shot to death, Dye said. But through unimaginable pain, life must go on, she said.
Darris Hinson, Grant’s principal and a 1988 graduate of the school, said J.J.’s death already has been a catalyst for change.
“I don’t believe in death,” Hinson said. “I believe in transcendence.”
Since the tragedy a year ago, Hinson said, community groups have formed to work toward solutions to violence in Del Paso Heights and beyond. Dozens of people, many of them mothers whose children have been killed, are going to schools, attending community meetings and knocking on doors, trying to pinpoint the causes of violence and work toward programs and initiatives designed to reduce the death toll.
Beyond formal meetings and initiatives, Hinson and others urged people in the audience to do the simple things: Watch their children closely, act as role models and reject petty differences.
“If J.J. meant anything to you, it has to be more than just coming to a memorial,” said community activist Mervin Brookins. “Don’t let J.J. down.”