Art therapy room to honor teen killed in gas disaster
by Jill Harmacinski, Eagle Tribune
More than 6 feet tall, lanky with a crop of thick hair, Leonel Rondon initially gave off a serious vibe to those who didn’t know him.
But when you cracked open that hard shell, he was warm and caring, known for his “big Teddy bear hugs,” his adoration of babies and toddlers and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“There are really no better hugs than his. And that’s one of the things we miss the most,” said Erin McNiff, a social worker at the Phoenix Academy charter school in Lawrence, which Rondon attended.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, Rondon planned to take the day out of school because he was going for his driver’s test. Just four hours before he died, the 18-year-old stopped by the school, located in the Everett Mills, to show his classmates and teachers his newly minted license.
“He was here every single day. ... We are comforted by the fact he was here that last day,” said McNiff, noting Rondon realized “graduating was the key to doing anything else.”
Planning and fundraising is now underway to create an art therapy room at Phoenix Academy — a working memorial to Rondon, who was the sole fatality in the Sept. 13, 2018 gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.
He’s remembered similarly at the Phoenix Academy, an alternative school that helps kids who may otherwise fall through the cracks finish their high school education.
Rondon was a student there for two years and was scheduled to graduate in May. He regularly spoke of his business plan to open a club in the city. And he was also known to walk into the school’s day care center and play with the kids.