Kelloggsville – Angelina De La Cruz sits in a conference room at Kelloggsville High School and looks out a nearby window on a sunny spring day. Her eyes are teary, but her voice remains strong and composed as she recalls one of the worst days of her life, the day last December when her dad, Ambiorix De La Cruz, died of a sudden heart attack.
“He hadn’t been feeling well,” she said. “But he thought it was just an upset stomach.”
After several hours of discomfort, Ambiorix decided he needed some soda to settle things down and drove to a local convenience store. Meanwhile, Angelina was on her way out with some friends, and as they drove to their destination, they heard sirens and thought they saw a car up against a telephone pole on the other side of the road.
When she returned home her panicked mother, Candida Acevedo De La Cruz, told Angelina she couldn’t reach her husband on his cell phone.
Her heart sank, Angelina said, as she told her mom about the ambulances and the car, and they rushed to the scene where the car – their car – remained. Authorities on the scene told them the driver had been rushed to the hospital, still alive.
“But when we got there (the hospital), they put us in this room by ourselves,” Angelina said. “I’m not stupid. I knew. Right away I knew.”
Dad’s Death at 53 Hit Hard
Soon after, doctors confirmed Angelina’s instincts. Her father had not made it. Ambiorix was just 53. As a high school senior, less than three weeks before Christmas, Angelina was left fatherless.
Mere months later, she said, there are times when it still doesn’t feel real and when her sense of loss can be almost overwhelming. Almost. She gets through it day by day, she said, but not without help.
When asked how she manages, her answer is immediate and decisive.
“God,” she said. “My mom. This place.”
Of her mom: “She’s amazing. She has always been amazing and is even more so now. I can talk to her about anything. She lost her dad at 15. I lost my dad at 17. So, yeah.”
As for her faith, she said that for a time the family wasn’t attending church because of her dad’s depression, and that she never really pushed herself to go back.
But after her dad’s death, her older sister told the family, “We need to go back to church.”
So back they went, finding a home at Kentwood Community Church where, Angelina said, a faith community had wrapped them in its love and support.
And, she added, she has found the same love and support at Kelloggsville High School.
After her dad’s death, her band teacher, Troy Anderson, brought them a broccoli casserole. Other Kelloggsville teachers opened their classrooms to her before, after and during the school day to give her a safe place to just be.
‘A Place to Feel Safe’
English teacher Angela Weststrate was one of those calming centers in the middle of the storms. “She is just so amazing and is so easy to talk to,” Angelina said. “I know I can talk to her about anything.”
Weststrate said the same about Angelina.
“She is sincerely a breath of fresh air every single day,” she said. “She honestly lights up a room.”
Weststrate had only known Angelina since September 2021, but recalled how Angelina spoke about her dad right away when she had her senior students introduce themselves.
“I knew that his passing was going to be a difficult obstacle for her,” she said. “My immediate concern was for her mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. She’s a dedicated student, so she needed to be reassured that school could wait. Beyond that, I wanted her to have a place to come to feel safe, so I offered my classroom anytime. I also knew Angelina had a faith that she could turn to, so I encouraged her in that area.”
Anderson had gotten to know Angelina her freshman year at Kelloggsville, when she joined band. He said he knew from the start that she was someone to keep an eye on.
“She was willing to switch to saxophone so she could be in band,” he said. “I only gave her a few lessons, and the rest she did on her own. She worked herself into being one of our top saxophonists. That’s a drive I admire.”
Supported By Community
The death of Ambiorix De La Cruz, Anderson said, meant a collective response by the Kelloggsville community.
“We talk about being a family, and this was another opportunity to prove it,” he said. “She had a lot of support from a lot of different people, and she and her family really deserved it. They are so kind to so many people.”
Angelina still gets emotional as she recalls the ways Kelloggsville supported her.
“There are so many teachers here who have been so helpful,” she said, struggling to stay composed. “I know I have people here who I can trust.”
That’s been true, she added, since her first day at Kelloggsville.
As a ninth-grader, she was the self-described new kid, having moved that summer with her family from Florida for her father’s work as a chef. It was a tough transition at first.
“I didn’t know anybody,” she said. “Not a single person. And I didn’t realize how close everyone in Kelloggsville is.”
That changed quickly though, and Angelina said the community was quick to bring her in.
She not only got involved in band, where she met Anderson, she also dove into her schoolwork and eventually found herself on firm footing as a first-year student.
Her second and third years at the high school were marked by the pandemic. The less said about that the better, Angelina said.
And though this, her senior year, still had some pandemic overtones, for the most part her last year of high school was proceeding pretty normally.
Still Hearing Her Dad’s Voice
Until December 8, 2021.
After her dad’s death, after the whirlwind of visitation, the funeral service, family and friends in the house at all hours and then the Christmas holidays, came January.
“It was annoying,” Angelina said. “I didn’t want to go back to normal, whatever that means. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it.”
She did it with her dad’s voice and wisdom ringing in her ears and guiding her days and nights.
“My dad always stressed school to me,” she said. “He wouldn’t want me to give up. I know that. I can hear him and what he would say to me. So, I just kept going, and when I feel like I can’t do it, I just think about him.”
That includes when she’s driving her yellow Volkswagen Beetle.
“My dad helped me find it,” she said. “He loved the car, and he told me it was a good opportunity. I would hear him on the phone talking to his friends about me, and he posted so many pictures and videos of me and the car on Facebook. I feel safe when I’m in it and often cry just thinking about him.”
Angelina added that, for her dad, college was the ultimate goal, and she plans to live up to his expectations.
A member of the National Honor Society and Student Council, she is part of Kent ISD’s Launch U early college program, which sees high school students take a combination of high school and college courses.
GRCC, then GVSU
Angelina will finish her senior year with both a diploma and one year of college credits. Next year she will head to Grand Rapids Community College for another year of college credits, and then will be able to transfer to a four-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree in just two years.
‘There are so many teachers here who have been so helpful. I know I have people here who I can trust.’– Angelina De La Cruz
Her goal is to go from GRCC to Grand Valley, where she plans to pursue a degree in human resources.
“My dream, my big dream, is to hopefully own my own business someday,” she said. “I think my dad would like that.”
Her teachers have no doubt she will do whatever she sets her mind to.
“I think Angelina is capable of absolutely anything,” Weststrate said. “She’s got an amazing amount of tenacity mixed with a joy that is hard to escape.”
“Her future is bright,” he said. “She is someone who sees what she wants and puts in the work to get it. She can network with the best of them. I can’t wait to see what she decides to do and becomes.”