By Jenn Watt
Published June 6 2017
Phoenix Acero could strike up a conversation with just about anyone. When he was five years old he started talking about fresh produce with a couple of 70-year-old women while standing in line with his grandfather at the grocery store. In high school despite being in Grade 9 he made friends with students in every grade offering a wide friendly smile.
“If he was sitting on a park bench and somebody was sitting there he would talk to them. He could make friends anywhere anytime" his mother Dulce said.
When Phoenix 14 died suddenly May 14 the loss of his cheerful presence was deeply felt.
Seven hundred people attended his funeral in Haliburton.
“I was surprised at how unaware I was of how many people Phoenix touched in some way” Dulce said in an interview with the Echo .
Those who knew him all say the same thing: he was bright and cheerful friendly and outgoing.
Phoenix was the kind of person you noticed right away.
His best friend Danielle Allison said she first met him at Haliburton Dance Academy’s intensive weeklong summer dance camp.
“I saw him and he was in this floral shirt. And he looked so different and stood out” Danielle said. “He had this vibe of happiness and something you wanted to be around all the time.”
She made sure to eat lunch with him on that first day and they talked through the whole break. “We hung out every second for the week” she remembers.
Phoenix was a year younger than Danielle so when she was in high school and he was still in elementary school they would hang out on weekends and during the summer.
“When he came to high school [this year] I was so happy. It was so exciting” she said. “He would come up and he’d always call me Dani Lee. He’d scream that at the top of his lungs.”
Phoenix had a booming voice – what his mom says was a recently acquired “James Earl Jones voice” which he was “super excited about” – and he knew how to use it.
Grade 11 student Xander Petrie said they would do a call-and-answer through the hallways to each other hollering as loudly as they could through the mass of students.
“He was a really easy kid to talk to and so cheerful” Xander said. “Always a smile on his face.”
“He had that cool swag. He’d walk into a room and it’d be like that kid’s cool.”
Xander doesn’t remember exactly where he met Phoenix the first time but they bonded over their love of skateboarding and rap. Xander is an active musician and the Grade 9 student would send him raps he made or perform them for him. The pair were planning to collaborate on a song together.
“When he rapped it was more like a poetic way of putting it out” Xander said.
Xander was asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral helping to carry the casket adorned with messages and signatures of the ceremony attendees.
“The moment I look[ed] at it it was like every tiny piece of emotion [came up]” he said. “It was like a river.”
Students have been grappling with the loss said Haliburton Highlands Secondary School vice-principal David Waito.
“The whole school has been affected by it” he said. “He was a very well liked young man and lots of people felt a connection with him.”
Students began writing on Phoenix’s locker as a makeshift memorial.
“It became a really important piece for the student body in their grieving process” Waito said. “And they wanted to give that to Phoenix’s mother as a token and a gift.”
Dulce said the locker door is now in her son’s bedroom and she’s not sure where she will keep it for the long term. Some of the messages prompted her to learn more about her son – some of the inside jokes he had with friends including about his white Adidas shoes.
“His white Adidas were his world” Dulce said.
Mornings in their home could be like a fashion show with Phoenix carefully considering what outfit to wear that day to school.
“He really cared about how he looked” she said.
Aside from rap music and skateboarding Phoenix recently took up basketball an interesting choice since he wasn’t exactly a natural basketball player.
His coach Gordon Cochrane said Phoenix was the junior boys’ basketball team’s most improved player. “He was not athletic [in terms of basketball] but he was a nice young man to have on the team” he said.
“I found him a very pleasant considerate courteous responsible young man.”
Phoenix kept trying to improve his game sometimes worrying he wasn’t keeping up with his teammates Dulce said but he was determined.
He used money saved up from his summer job to buy a pair of Air Jordans to wear on the court only to have them stolen.
“He was so devastated” she said.
After the funeral the shoes were anonymously returned to Dulce. She said she’d be giving them to one of her son’s best friends on the team.
Dulce is getting through the sudden loss of her oldest child one day at a time. She is surrounded by loving family: her daughter Anabel parents Carlos and Brenda sisters Kamala and Melodie and many others. She worries for the students at the school however.
“Some of them are 14. That’s really young” she said. “They don’t know how to cope with this and manage this.”
Several of Phoenix’s friends have contacted her and shared their stories photos and videos. “They’re reaching out to me and that actually helps me to talk to his friends because it gives me little glimpses into his life about some things he didn’t always share with me” she said.
Some of his friends started organizing a vigil for him to take place at Head Lake Park in Haliburton on the evening of Saturday June 24. The event will come four days after his birthday and the students hope it will bring a chance for closure or at least to grieve together as a community.
For those he was close to Phoenix continues to be a presence felt in their daily lives.
Danielle said he was planning to come with her to the prom after-party this year which came a couple of weeks following his death.
“His favourite colour was green and after prom there were green Northern Lights that not many people saw but a few of us did. I think that was him showing up” she said.
Xander has renamed Phoenix’s favourite song after him on the mixtape he released last week which he will also perform at the vigil. As he moves forward with his career in music he said Phoenix will be with him.
“When I become a rapper he’ll be with me on those steps” he said.
For Dulce her son is all around her.
“I feel him all the time. I do. I feel him with me.”