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Santa Maria Teens to Honor Breanna Rodriguez During Summer Trip to Uganda

Children’s play structure to be built and dedicated in memory of Righetti High School senior killed in January car crash

Deanna Byrne, center, is leading a trip to Uganda for high school students, including Righetti High seniors Sophia Gomez, left, and Caitlyn Sampson. Their friend, Breanna Rodriguez, had planned to go on the trip but was died in a January car crash. Rodriguez’s family hosted a fundraising picnic for the trip Saturday at Preisker Park in Santa Maria. Click to view larger
Deanna Byrne, center, is leading a trip to Uganda for high school students, including Righetti High seniors Sophia Gomez, left, and Caitlyn Sampson. Their friend, Breanna Rodriguez, had planned to go on the trip but was died in a January car crash. Rodriguez’s family hosted a fundraising picnic for the trip Saturday at Preisker Park in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

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When Santa Maria Valley students travel to Uganda this summer, Breanna Rodriguez won’t be far from their minds since the teenagers will build and dedicate a play structure in her memory.

Breeana Rodriguez had been so determined to go on a trip to Uganda that she began fundraising for it last summer.
Breeana Rodriguez had been so determined to go on a trip to Uganda that she began fundraising for it last summer.

For nearly two years, Rodriguez had set her sights on going on the adventure, but it was not to be. The Righetti High School senior died in a Jan. 30 car crash on East Donovan Road after a basketball game between Righetti and crosstown rival Pioneer Valley High School.

“After she passed, I thought, ‘Why don’t we look at doing a play structure. How hard would that be?’” said Deanna Byrne, who teaches at Righetti and organizes the Uganda trips.

“That would be such a beautiful thing.”

Other students planning to go on the trip raised funds to reach their goals during a community appreciation barbecue hosted by Rodriguez’s family Saturday afternoon at Preisker Park.

Several  hundred people attended the barbecue, many sporting T-shirts with Rodriguez’s picture and the words “Drive Safe” and “#forbree,” in addition to the Bible verse, Isaiah 41:13

While the barbecued hot dogs and chips were given away for free, a nearby table saw a steady stream of customers buying sweet treats, T-shirts, bracelets and bags made in Uganda as Rodriguez’s friends raised money for their 15-day trip.

“Everything that’s purchased from that table will go directly to the students,” said Rodriguez’s mother, Isabel Gerardo-Rodriguez.

The Rodriguez family planned to feed up to 1,500 people at the barbecue, in addition to having bounce houses for children and music for everyone.

“It’s the least we can do to thank people,” Gerardo-Rodriguez told Noozhawk, expressing her gratitude for the outpouring of support the family received when their 17-year-old daughter died.

Righetti senior class president Caitlyn Sampson, one of the students selling items at the table, said she viewed the Uganda trip as a chance to see the other side of the world in her friend’s honor.

After Rodriguez died, Sampson said she mulled backing out of the trip.

“I didn’t want to go when she passed away,” she said. “Now, I need to go with my other friends to see the world for her.”

Nadia Valdez, a Righetti junior, said she wanted to help people.

“I just want to make my life worth it ...,” she explained. “I want to say I did something.”

Before Rodriguez died, Valdez said, she motivated her friend not to quit.

“She told me not to, that it’s going to be worth it,” she said.

About 12 years ago, Byrne decided she wanted to travel to Africa to work with women and children. Since then, she has returned to Uganda once or twice a year.

Byrne started taking students with her a few years ago. While many of the students are from Righetti, the trip isn’t conducted through the school. Previous trips also have included students from St. JosephArroyo Grande, Mission College Prep and San Luis Obispo high schools.

The schedule calls for students to attend class, teach an American dance, learn a Ugandan dance, go on a three-day safari, visit tea and sugar cane plantations, and see the last rainforest in Africa, in addition to building.

“We’ll just immerse ourselves in the culture and the students,” Byrne said.

Each student must raise about $3,000 for the airfare and other costs. They also must provide Byrne with individual fundraising plans, in addition to the reasons why they want to go.

Byrne hosted a barbecue for participants last summer, and on Saturday she recalled an encounter there with Rodriguez. She said she remembered the teen’s intensive drive to start raising funds for her trip, and that she fretted that she needed to begin in the summer since she expected to be busy during her senior year.

“I’m like, ‘Who are you?’” Byrne recalled. “Because this was a totally different kid than she was.”

Byrne recalled seeing another play structure built as a memorial tribute in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, and she decided that would be a great project to complete in honor of Rodriguez.

As Byrne wondered how to make the project a reality, a friend told her about San Luis Obispo-based Journeyman International, which helps connect student architects who need to gain experience with local and global humanitarian organizations.

“Things just started (coming together),” she said, adding that a couple of big donations provided $4,000 toward the approximately $7,000 project.

Byrne already has seen the impact the trip had had on teens.

“It’s just life changing,” she said, adding one former student decided to major in international relations at UC Berkeley.

“It’s changed how they see things, and what they want to do and who they want to be,” Byrne said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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