Titusville High schoolers dedicate tree to lives lost in COVID-19 pandemic, shootings

Titusville students planted a tree for Earth Day Friday, dedicating it to “lives lost due to intolerance,” in hopes of spreading a message of inclusion.

A plaque arranged for by the Titusville High School chapter of Best Buddies reads: “In loving memory of the innocent lives lost to violence and intolerance. Diversity in life is assured, but inclusion is crucial.”

Best Buddies is an international charity that aims to foster friendships, employment and inclusive living for individuals with intellection and developmental disabilities.

Olivia Brown, president of the Titusville High club, said she and other students were heartbroken when they heard that one of the 10 victims of the March 22 mass shooting in a Boulder, Colorado, grocery story, Teri Leiker, was a Best Buddies participant.

Leiker died at age 51. She was an 11-year member of the University of Colorado Boulder Best Buddies Chapter and a Special Olympics athlete who proudly worked as a clerk at King Soopers for more than 30 years, despite her cognitive disabilities, missing work only when she was sick, her family said in a statement.

Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, faces 54 total charges in connection with the shooting, including 10 counts of first-degree murder and 32 counts of attempted first-degree murder.

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But the tree is dedicated to many more, including those who have died in the Atlanta spa shootings and those who died in the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said.

“When we saw during the Boulder, Colorado, shooting that Terri passed, it just totally hit home even harder, because we realize, wow, like, we just cannot believe these things are still happening,” Brown said. “We just realized, it just shows how we need just more inclusion, we need to spread that message, because diversity is everywhere.”

“The pandemic has created such a rooted sadness, anger and divide amongst us all,” Brown added.

The tree, a jacaranda, will bloom purple flowers each year. Purple is the logo color of Best Buddies. About 15 or 20 students attended the dedication, Brown said.

Both Brown and club Vice President Adriauna Cooper will be attending the University of Central Florida in the fall and will be joining the Best Buddies club there. The two became friends as freshmen when they joined the club.

“It’s just such a positive space to be in, you know, if you’re having a bad day, you walk in and, for me, I’m instantly happy because it’s so positive here,” Cooper said

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