Grieving parents feel GCU love at Commencement
● Slideshow of the parents accepting the posthumous degrees.
● Full slideshows and replays of ceremonies Friday afternoon (with Valladares family) and Friday evening (with Ingle family).
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
They have shared so much in the weeks since the auto accident that took their daughters home to Jesus and left them needing Him – and each other – more than ever.
The grief, of course. The cruel, relentless grief.
The memories of the special bond between Chelsea Valladares and Kelli Ingle that now adheres these two families like super glue.
The near daily texts and phone chats that have become a lifeline.
The trips to the Grand Canyon University campus as students and staff sought to commemorate and console.
And Friday, these appreciative parents shared standing ovations at GCU’s Spring Commencement as they accepted posthumous degrees for their daughters.
First, the graduates and their families stood in unison at the afternoon ceremony as Erica and Fausto Valladares came to the stage.
Not to be outdone, the even larger gathering in the evening – which included students with Kelli’s initials on a heart affixed to their mortarboards – rose up and kept applauding as Kristi and Rick Ingle said thank you by gesturing to their hearts.
“The fact that we got her diploma was very, very important because it was very important to her,” Rick said. “We really want to thank the University for that – they didn’t have to do that.”
Being there with the Ingles reminded Erica how much she values them.
Chelsea and Kelli has become Erica and Kristi and Fausto and Rick.
“They’re the only people who really can understand fully what we’re going through,” Erica said. “I find so much comfort just getting a text from Kristi or speaking to her. And Rick is just amazing. I feel like Rick and Fausto are very similar and Kristi and I are very similar.
“We love them. We are so connected to them and always will be.”
The love goes both ways. “It’s a strange bond to have, but I find a lot of comfort in the Valladares family,” Kristi said.
They have sought to comfort each other frequently this month.
First, there was the Celebration of Life at GCU on April 13, an evening ceremony that was as therapeutic for mourners from the campus and Pure Heart Church, where Chelsea and Kelli served, as it was for the families.
“I think it’s important for other people to be able to come together because they’re also grieving – it’s not just our loss,” Erica said. “I think the Celebration of Life was really honoring to both Chelsea and Kelli. It was so beautiful – the songs that the musicians sang, the pictures that we could share, the kind words that the Residence Life people spoke about both Chelsea and Kelli. It was just heartwarming.”
The healing continued afterward as the parents were approached by GCU students and the middle schoolers from Pure Heart Church whom Chelsea and Kelli had molded with their servant leadership. Even those younger students’ parents came up to pay their respects.
Two days later, Erica and Fausto flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to attend Kelli’s celebration of life service April 16. They went to the Ingles’ home and played board games every night.
The bond continued to be strengthened this weekend at Commencement. Kristi and Rick weren’t able to leave Albuquerque in time to be at GCU Arena in the afternoon, but the families sat together at the evening ceremony and met with GCU President Brian Mueller afterward.
That was only the beginning of their activities. They planned to go together to the Arizona Coyotes hockey game Saturday night with tickets the Ingles had purchased months ago in anticipation of the trip to Phoenix for Kelli’s graduation. Next weekend, Kristi and Rick will be in California for Chelsea’s celebration of life service – and will come to the Valladares’ home for the first time.
Through it all, the happy memories of how Chelsea and Kelli felt about GCU come flooding out amid the tears. Scott Ingle also was at Friday’s ceremony and remembered how his sister raved when she came home from GCU on breaks.
“She was so excited to tell us about new things that happened here,” he said. “I just know how much this college meant to her. It was right behind us as her family. It’s just been such a blessing for her. The light of her life was being here.”
Kristi laughed when she thought back to how Kelli would tell her, “Mom, I’ve got to go home,” when it was time to return to campus.
“So I knew that she had really found her place here,” she said. “We are so thankful for Grand Canyon.”
She witnessed the GCU spirit once more as Kelli lay in a hospital bed after the accident. Eight GCU students stationed themselves there with the family and refused to leave.
“It was phenomenal,” Kristi said. “I told them, ‘You kids should be back in school. Kelli would be shaking her finger at you.’ And they’re like, ‘No, we’re here for you.’”
Erica has gone back through the final texts she received from Chelsea and marvels at how often they arrived. Not only that, but her daughter was calling her every day the final week of her life because she had so much to talk about – she even called Mom to tell her about a job interview before leaving the company’s parking lot.
“She was just so willing to share her life,” she said. “I know a lot of 20-year-olds are not doing that with their parents. Those are memories that I will hold onto. I know my husband will hold onto the fun that they had connecting over fantasy football and sports.”
They also will hold on to all these remembrances – the two celebrations of life with one to come, and Friday’s emotional scenes.
“It’s really helped,” Erica said. “All three of those have been so important just because we tried really hard to share Chelsea with family and friends.
“Chelsea was so sweet and loving and kind to everybody that I feel like she was almost everybody’s daughter or everybody’s friend or sister or niece or granddaughter, and we tried to share that. She was very close with my mom, and she would go every Friday with her to a gathering for women at the church. She would just go and love on these women.”
But, inevitably, their thoughts turn back to their faith.
“Without the prayers of believers across the nation, I don’t think that we would be standing,” Kristi said. “We know she was loved, and we know she’s with Jesus.”
Her husband fought through tears to get out these words:
“For the rest of my life, I will be incredibly sad, but I’ll be OK because I know where she’s at and I know where I’m going. I can be sad and OK at the same time.”
And until he gets there, he has the Valladares family to help him feel OK along the way.
Even amid grief, God provides.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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