GCU mourns the loss of two unforgettable students

April 14, 2022 / by / 1 Comment
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The crowd sits in silence as photos of Kelli Ingle (left on screen) and Chelsea Valladares are shown at the end of the Celebration of Life on Wednesday night on the Quad. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

She completed high school in 2½ years and came to Grand Canyon University as a shy 17-year-old, trying to find her way.

Chelsea (left) blossomed when she came to GCU and Kelli was one of her suitemates. 

Then Chelsea Valladares met Kelli Ingle, and her world changed. Their new world together was filled with laughter, exuberance and, most importantly, their shared love of God.

Everywhere they went – on campus, to Pure Heart Church, to each other’s houses in Harbor City, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico – it was the same thing.

Chelsea and Kelli.

Kelli and Chelsea.

They were inseparable.

It seems so wrong that this beautiful friendship is now only a memory for families and friends trying to understand why they had to say goodbye Wednesday evening at the Celebration of Life, an annual GCU service that, this time, was devoted solely to this unforgettable pair. (Here’s a slideshow.)

The details of the auto accident on Interstate 40 in northern Arizona are still murky. They were headed to Kelli’s house – that much is known. Chelsea died at the scene; Kelli passed away a few days later, kept alive so her organs could be donated.

Erica and Fausto Valladares enjoy a lighter moment at Wednesday evening’s service as others struggle to keep their composure. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

But what became clear Wednesday, both in the worship service on the Quad and in a morning press conference with Chelsea’s parents, Erica and Fausto Valladares, is that this story needs to be told.

This is what’s possible in young lives filled with faith and fun. And we can learn even more when two of them are sent to eternal life so soon, leaving behind broken hearts but important lessons about trusting God’s providence and living your best life for whatever time He grants you here on Earth.

Even if it’s such a relatively short time.

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Erica Valladares talked so calmly, so stoically Wednesday morning about her daughter’s tragic death that an incredulous listener had to ask how she and her husband could seem to handle it so well.

“Our faith in Jesus,” she said.

Erica Valladares said her faith is helping her get through this ordeal — that, and knowing that Chelsea and Kelli are together in heaven. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

She told of how Chelsea accepted Christ as her Savior at age 4.

“What? Are you an adult? How can you even make that decision? Do you even know what that means?” Erica asked her.

“But she did, and her faith was important to her for her whole life. She never wavered from her faith. She was kind and really sweet, and this would be something that she would not be comfortable with. She was very comfortable to just kind of be in the background, but she was a total leader as well.”

For example, Chelsea volunteered to help lead a Sunday school class for special needs children at the family’s church because it gave her more time to share with her sister, Lexi, who was born with a rare genetic disorder and suffered from seizures until she died at age 6 in 2010.

The pair regularly visited each other’s house.

Erica hoped and prayed that Chelsea someday would find another sister-like friend. Then GCU happened. Then Kelli Ingle happened.

“She really just blossomed,” Erica said. “We are so thankful for GCU, and not just for the way that they’ve come around us to support us in the last 12 days or so, just really showing what GCU family is all about. Chelsea really found her place here. … She was thriving and living her best life.”

That’s mainly because she found Ingle. They were suitemates and soon discovered how much they had in common even though their personalities were so different – Chelsea was reserved, Kelli bubbly and outgoing.

They went to New York together with family last fall.

When Kelli asked if anyone in the suite wanted to try out some of the local churches, Chelsea was a willing participant. That led them to Pure Heart Church and to its youth ministry. Chelsea loved working with the junior high kids. “My girls,” she called them.

She and Kelli shared a multitude of activities, as the photos on the video screen after Wednesday’s service demonstrated. The smiles were the same in every picture – bright, energetic, filled with joy.

“Kelli was like Chelsea’s sister,” Erica said. “… They were faithful servants, loved life. They were just fun, loving, pure, happy-go-lucky girls.”

When the accident occurred, they were only three weeks from graduation – Chelsea studied business management, Kelli biochemistry and molecular biology.

And they celebrated the Los Angeles Rams’ Super Bowl victory in February.

Chelsea had just announced to her parents that God told her to stay in Arizona – not only to work, but to continue to be a mentor at Pure Heart Church. She and Kelli, who planned to become a nurse, had lined up an apartment they would share with a friend.

On the Tuesday before that fateful Friday night, Chelsea interviewed to become a talent acquisition specialist. The recruiter subsequently told Erica that she was so impressed with Chelsea, she planned to hire her on the spot the following week.

As Erica spoke, it was as if the faith she had instilled in Chelsea now was exuding through her. Full circle. First Lexi was gone. Now Chelsea. And yet Erica and Fausto cope, inspired by a daughter who so closely followed in the footsteps of her parents … and Jesus.

“I picture Chelsea and Kelli with Lexi in heaven,” Erica said. “Their bodies are not them here now. The Bible tells us that they have new bodies, and they are in heaven.

“And so just the hope – the hope of Jesus, and I hope that that can shine. Chelsea’s faith was her own and super important to her, and so, if anything, we want to share that so other people can come to know Jesus, as well.”

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GCU alum Chandler Jennings was one of the musicians who performed at the service. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Wednesday night’s service opened and closed with worship music by GCU students Amanda Riffe and Cavan Jones and alumnus Chandler Jennings, Director of Worship at Pure Heart Church.

In between, there were talks by representatives from GCU and Pure Heart and, most poignantly, by two mothers united by their daughters and now their grief.

Erica talked about how Chelsea and Kelli bonded over “their love for musical theatre, fantasy football, San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, but most importantly over their love for Jesus.”  

She wanted students listening to hear three things.

The service drew GCU students as well as girls who knew the pair from youth ministry at Pure Heart Church. (Photo by Ralph Freso) 

“First, love God. Pursue Him. Get to know Him so intimately that when He speaks, you hear Him and you want to obey Him,” she said, her voice cracking this time.

“Love others. Get out of your comfort zone and be vulnerable with others. Get involved on campus, find a church, serve others. Share your life and heart with others as Chelsea and Kelli did with one another, so that you truly know others and are known by others.

“And as a mom I say, invite your parents to be a part of your lives. Call them. Share the small things with them, not just the big things. Take pictures with them. Share your lives with them, as Chelsea did with us. Trust me, it will bring them such joy, and the depth of your relationship will be so rich.”

Then it was Kristi Ingle’s turn.

Kristi Ingle talked of how Kelli, like Chelsea, was changed by her experience at GCU. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“In times like this, it’s so easy to question God and say, ‘Why?’ But in times like this I have to rely on who God is, and I know He has a purpose,” she began.

She told a similar story of growth in her daughter. Kelli, who decided to attend GCU several years before her arrival, was a life leader as a sophomore because she wanted to help homesick freshmen, then transitioned to a resident assistant role the last two years.

“Her greatest desire was to know Christ and to make Him known,” Kristi said, adding that a friend described Kelli as “a living giggle and a bright light to others.”

She cited Ephesians 4:2-3, in which the apostle Paul wrote:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Kristi Ingle urged listeners to follow Kelli’s example by loving others with their whole heart. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“I just love her with my whole heart!” Kelli would frequently say.

“So I challenge you to honor Kelli’s life, and Chelsea’s, by loving with your whole heart, being willing to go the extra mile and sharing about Jesus every opportunity that you have,” Kristi concluded. “We love the Valladares family, and we are so thankful for Chelsea.”

Chelsea and Kelli.

Kelli and Chelsea.

Sisters forever.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].

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One Response
  1. Latysha Browning

    My heartfelt condolences to the families and with the Love of Christ Chelsea and Kelli rest in Jehovah’s Eternal Shalom??

    Apr.20.2022 at 6:11 pm
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