Wildflowers bloomed in a tiny garden — some red, purple and pink. Together, Jennifer Bonilla and Hailey Ordonez tended the patch in South Los Angeles, where the high schooler and the preschooler kept the flowers alive.
Fourteen years separated the girls, but relatives noticed striking similarities — their coils of brown hair, their spunk.
This week, not far from their garden, Hailey, 4, sat near burning candles, a crucifix and flowers as visitors looked at pictures of her aunt Jennifer. The 17-year-old senior at Dorsey High School died last week in the Northern California bus crash that claimed 10 lives. Five of them were students on their way to tour Humboldt State.
Two of Jennifer's sisters, who spoke softly but sometimes erupted in laughter as they recounted favorite memories, described a baby-faced girl with a fiery personality. You could often find her with the youngest of her relatives, playing tag and letting them win. Or she might be at a heavy metal concert in Hollywood wearing an Iron Maiden band t-shirt and silver-studded leather boots.
Even though she was the youngest in the family, her sisters said she was the one who inspired them. She had a 30-year plan: become a social worker, build her own practice and work with children in the neighborhood.
Several hundred students, parents, teachers and L.A. Unified officials attended a vigil in Jennifer's honor at Dorsey Wednesday evening, gathering near a giant tree in the courtyard where she used to hang out with friends. Her classmates wiped away tears as they released green and white balloons – Dorsey's colors – and said: "We love you, Jenny."
Growing up, she led a group of a dozen or so kids who lived in her sister's apartment building. They ran up and down the stairs for hours. It drove the building manager crazy; the kids couldn't resist Jennifer's rambunctiousness, her magnetism.
"There was something about her that made everyone want to be around her," said her sister Nancy Bonilla, 22.
Jennifer planned to attend UC Santa Cruz in the fall, but decided to go on the trip to Humboldt anyway.
Teachers described her as a voracious learner who aggressively engaged the world.
With her beloved eco club, she would walk Dockweiler beach picking up trash. She took dance classes. Some afternoons, while visiting her sister Rosa Bonilla Ordonez, Hailey's mother, they would crank the music, clear the furniture and transform the living room into a dance floor. Jennifer taught Hailey merengue some days, others it was jazz or cumbia.
"Hailey adores Jenny," Rosa said. "It was always 'Where's Jenny? Jenny come over, let's play.' They did everything together."
The whole family was dedicated to helping Jennifer succeed. Nancy Bonilla works 80 hours a week to cover the bills. When Jennifer needed something for school, the sisters and Maritza Mestas, a close family friend, pooled their money. Relatives rallied behind her — the first in her family to attend college.
"She was our baby," Nancy Bonilla said. "Whatever she needed we got for her — if she didn't get it from one sister she got it from the other."
But she helped them, too. She encouraged them.
"Her dream for us was for us to go to school," Bonilla said. "She told us, 'If I go to school, you have to go as well. She was our baby, but she was the leader."
The family was planning a road trip to Santa Cruz so she could see the campus and get to know the area. She had never been there but loved that she'd be near the water. Her family never got to give her their surprise going-away gift: a pastel pink beach cruiser with a basket on the handlebars.
"She would have looked so cute riding that beach cruiser on her way to the beach," Mestas said.
Each morning, before heading to the bus stop, Jennifer would give her mother, Rosa, a hug, a kiss and a reminder that she loved her. And when she returned in the afternoon, she did the same, but added a question: "What is there to eat?" Nancy recalled with a laugh.
A few days after Jennifer died, Hailey woke up and excitedly rushed to tell her mother the news. Jenny had come back, she said. She saw her in a dream and she was flying.
Her wings changed from red to purple to pink as she glided through the sky, Hailey told a visitor, fluttering her tiny arms like wings.
Then Jenny landed, smiled and hugged her. She gave her a kiss and told Hailey that she loved her.
"She gave me a flower," Hailey said, "and she said that she was with the angelitos."
A fund for donations to help the family with funeral arrangements has been established at http://www.gofundme.com/8a287s.