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Heartbreak in Harmony: A Middle-Schooler's Unforgettable Acts of Friendship Amidst Tragedy

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Unseen Loss: The Tragic Tale of Brexi Torres-Ortiz, A Victim of Gun Violence

Editor’s This story is part of a series profiling American youth killed this year by guns, a leading cause of death of children in the US. Read more about the project here.

Almost nine months have elapsed since the haunting melody of "Take Me to the King" filled the air, a soulful duet between 11-year-old Brexi Torres-Ortiz and her mother, Brenlee “Bre” Ortiz. The gospel tune, Brexi's favorite, carried profound emotions within its lyrics, a depth that neither mother nor daughter fully grasped at the time.

“You will cry just listening to her sing it,” reminisced Ortiz. “It’s like, she was so young, how did she know what this song was saying?”

The heartbreaking truth dawned on Ortiz when her beloved daughter, affectionately known as Brexialee, fell victim to gun violence in Syracuse, New York. Brexi's life was tragically cut short while innocently fetching a gallon of milk from a corner store—an ordinary errand that turned into an unfathomable nightmare.

On January 16, what should have been a cozy family night turned into a night of profound loss. Brexi, anticipating a movie night with blankets covering the floor after relishing her grandmother's homemade macaroni and cheese, never got to experience that warmth again. Instead, her final hours were spent in a hospital bed on life support, leaving Ortiz grappling with the incomprehensible reality that her middle daughter was caught in a storm of bullets merely 40 feet from home.

The perpetrators, aged 16, 18, and 20 at the time, were swiftly apprehended within 10 days of the shooting. They now face charges of second-degree murder and other offenses, shedding light on the disturbing statistic that Brexi became one of over 1,300 youths killed by guns in the US in the past year, surpassing even motor vehicle-related fatalities.

As the wheels of justice turn and court proceedings unfold, Ortiz attends every hearing, seeking solace and answers. Yet, the struggle persists—every day and every hopeless night. The echoes of "Take Me to the King" serve as a poignant reminder of a life extinguished too soon, leaving behind a grieving mother, shattered dreams, and a community grappling with the harsh realities of a pervasive and devastating epidemic.

"In the wake of unimaginable loss, the memory of Brexi Torres-Ortiz lingers as an indelible presence in the heart of her grieving mother, Brenlee 'Bre' Ortiz. Every waking moment is haunted by the absence of the vibrant 11-year-old, whose warmth, infectious smile, and compassionate spirit touched the lives of everyone she encountered. 'As soon as I open my eyes, it’s her on my mind,' Ortiz revealed, a painful ritual that extends into the haunting realm of dreams, which, in reality, are nothing but nightmares.

The funeral, a heartbreaking farewell to a life extinguished too soon, became a testament to the profound impact Brexi had on her peers. Condolences poured in, with countless children expressing, 'She was my best friend.' Brexi's unique ability to tailor her friendship to individual needs left an enduring mark on those who were fortunate enough to know her. 'She knew how to be a best friend to everybody and give each one of them what they needed,' Ortiz reflected, a poignant acknowledgment of her daughter's empathetic nature.

Brexi, a beacon of positivity and leadership, served as the student council president of her sixth-grade class, a 'shining star' on the after-school dance team, and an encourager of wise choices among her peers. However, her untimely death not only robbed her of a promising future but also thrust her school community into the harsh reality of gun violence gripping the younger generation. Kayla Gallagher, the school psychologist, discovered the painful truth as she navigated grief-stricken classrooms—every child already knew what to do, having adorned themselves with T-shirts, hats, and a makeshift shrine at Brexi's locker.

In a remarkable tribute, Brexi's school now commemorates her life monthly on 'Brexi Day,' embracing activities that celebrate her joy, determination, and the sense of belonging she brought to the community. Leeza Roper, a teacher at Syracuse STEM at Blodgett Middle School, encapsulates the collective sentiment, saying, 'We choose to remember her not for the sorrow of her passing but for the joy, determination, and the sense of belongingness she brought to our school.' In the face of profound grief, Brexi's legacy endures, reminding everyone touched by her light of the enduring power of compassion and the impact a young soul can have on an entire community."

"At the Boys and Girls Club at Central Village, a place where Brexi Torres-Ortiz joyfully spent much of her free time, her memory is now etched into the very fabric of the community. Her name graces a sign outside the building, and her photograph adorns the entryway, a poignant tribute to the 'wonderful impression' she left on the organization, as described by Stacey Nichols, spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Syracuse.

"I want that all the kids that go there not be sad when they see her picture," expressed Brexi's grieving mother, Brenlee 'Bre' Ortiz. "I want them to be motivated to do more and to be better." In a collaborative effort between the Syracuse Police Department and the Syracuse Housing Authority, a bench now stands in front of the building, a quiet yet powerful memorial to Brexi. This spot serves as a place for friends and family to gather, reflect, and remember the bright spirit that once graced their lives, as shared by Syracuse Police Sgt. Brad Giarrusso.

"Brexi came from a forgotten community," noted Kayla Gallagher, the school psychologist, "but she will not be forgotten by her community." The collective efforts to honor Brexi's memory extend beyond physical tributes. On what would have been her 12th birthday on October 7, loved ones gathered not for a joyous celebration with cake and candles, but at her gravesite. In a solemn yet heartfelt gesture, they released white balloons into the evening sky, a symbolic offering to the girl who left a lasting impact on their hearts.

"There is no justice. Justice will be bringing my daughter back," Ortiz declared, grappling with the painful reality that no amount of commemoration can fill the void left by Brexi's absence. In the midst of this profound grief, Ortiz finds a modicum of solace in the belief that her daughter has found peace. "And though Ortiz would give anything for one more hug from Brexi or one more verse sung together, she takes an ounce of comfort, she said, knowing her daughter 'finally made it to the King.'"

In the poignant aftermath of Brexi Torres-Ortiz's untimely departure, the community has rallied to immortalize her spirit, ensuring that her vibrant presence will not be lost to the passage of time. At the Boys and Girls Club, where Brexi's laughter once echoed, her name now graces a sign, and her photograph serves as a lasting testament to the indelible mark she left on the organization. The bench, standing sentinel in front of the building, offers a quiet space for reflection, inviting friends and family to gather and remember the light that was Brexi.

Despite the heart-wrenching absence felt during what should have been her 12th birthday celebration, loved ones chose to commemorate her memory with white balloons released into the evening sky—a symbolic gesture that transcends sorrow and speaks to the enduring impact of Brexi's spirit.

Brenlee 'Bre' Ortiz, caught in the throes of unimaginable grief, finds a bittersweet solace in knowing that her daughter has found peace. Justice, an elusive concept in the face of such profound loss, takes on new meaning—a yearning for the impossible, a desperate desire to bring back a beloved soul.

In the final refrain of this sorrowful symphony, Ortiz reflects on the simple yet profound comfort derived from the belief that Brexi has 'finally made it to the King.' It's a testament to the enduring power of faith, the resilience of community bonds, and the unyielding spirit of a mother who, in the face of profound tragedy, finds solace in the idea that her cherished daughter has found eternal peace.

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