By Toluse Olorunnipa Miami Herald Staff Writer
Updated: 8:09 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011
Posted: 7:21 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011
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The small white guestbook in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church on Sunday was sprinkled with words indicating that a little girl was in a better place: “Angel,” “love,” “heaven.”
Friends, classmates and community members gathered to say final goodbyes to Nubia Barahona, a 10-year-old whose body was found doused in chemicals two weeks ago inside a pickup truck along Interstate 95 in West Palm Beach, and whose death has reignited a debate about child protective services.
Inside the sanctuary, about 75 community members celebrated Nubia’s short life, mourned its gruesome end, and were encouraged to channel their sadness into action.
“As a community, it is natural for us to cry, to talk, to hug each other, to be sad and to grieve at the evil that has happened,” said the Rev. Alan Sielk, St. Paul’s pastor of the church in western Miami-Dade County.
Sielk challenged the Blue Lakes community of West Miami-Dade County to not only grieve, but to take active steps towards preventing a similar incident from happening ever again.
“Nubia calls us to action,” he said.
Members of the community wrestled with the fact that a child was allowed to suffer a series of tragedies in the middle of a middle-class community where palm trees line clean streets.
Nubia’s life trajectory began tragically. She and her twin brother Victor were born to a mother dealing with a drug addiction and homelessness. Nubia was reportedly sexually abused by her birth father before she turned 5 and was put into foster care. The couple that would eventually adopt her, Jorge and Carmen Barahona, have been accused of abusing her physically and emotionally.
Teachers told the Department of Children and Families that Nubia regularly came to school hungry, dirty and tired. Jorge Barahona, who owns the pickup truck where Nubia’s body was found, has been charged with aggravated abuse and the attempted murder of her twin Victor, who was found convulsing in the same truck on the shoulder of the highway near Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.
“Nubia was betrayed by the people that were supposed to love her the most,” said Blue Lakes resident Maria Saunders, during the memorial.
After the service, attendees embraced one another, fought back tears and talked about what went wrong.
“We were always concerned about Nubia,” said Lizzete Mendez-Balladares, who attended the memorial with her daughter, a friend and classmate of Nubia. “She would ask my daughter for food. She would ask the teachers for food. There was only so much we could do because she’s a minor. We did what we could do.”
Even those who never knew Nubia came out to grieve.
“In the past few weeks, I’ve put myself in Nubia’s shoes,” said Saunders, who did not know the Barahonas but felt compelled to come to the memorial. “I’ve had her in my heart, in my mind. She’s been a part of me.”
Joanne Muniz, who was the PTA president when Nubia attended Blue Lakes Elementary, helped organized the memorial to celebrate the life of a child she and her husband suspected needed help.
Speaking to reporters after the service, Muniz expressed disappointment in the administrators at Blue Lakes Elementary, where the Barahona children, she said, “fell through the cracks.” She indicated that teachers had been told not to attend the service.
The children were taken out of school last year by their adoptive parents.
Muniz also urged that policies at the Department of Children and Families be changed to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Standing next to a photo of a smiling Nubia during the memorial service, Muniz fought off tears as she read from a poem titled “Little Angels:”
“So when a child departs, we who are left behind, must realize God loves children. Angels are hard to find.”