LH 29 Photo by: Karen Castillo Farán , Brooks Institute

Local Hero

Lose a life, save a life — Anja Reyes of Oxnard

By Karen Castillo Farfán 02/09/2012

It was the grief-ravaged cry that woke Anja Reyes from an afternoon nap. Around 2 p.m. in early March 2003, Anja’s mother, Tila Reyes, received a phone call that altered the family’s lives forever. “For some reason I was having a bad day so I took a nap to feel better,” Anja recalled.

Shortly after lying down, her mother stormed into the room with terrifying news. After shaking a cloud of confusion, Anja finally made sense of the scene. “We received a call that my brother [Jesse Cardenas] was in the hospital and that he had been shot,” she said.

Immediately, Anja called around to the local hospitals and learned that Jesse’s name wasn’t on their patient lists. “I told my mom we needed to go now [to the hospital]. I grabbed my son and we drove there.”

On the road toward the hospital, the family noticed a large crowd on Second Street in Oxnard, near the location where the earlier phone conversation with her brother took place. “Jesse was helping our brother move and was looking for a truck so he called me from a pay phone,” explained Anja.

Something in her heart told her to turn around. Anja followed her instincts to Second Street where, among the crowd, police and ambulances, a covered body was resting on the sidewalk. Later, the police confirmed Anja’s greatest fear; the body was her brother, Jesse Cardenas. It happened March 2, 2003.

Ventura County’s chapter of Parents of Murdered Children (POMC) is an organization founded in 1978 by Charlotte and Bob Hullinger after their daughter was murdered. It’s designed to offer emotional support and information about surviving the loss of a murdered loved one through sharing experiences, feelings and insights.

Two years after Jesse’s passing, Anja learned about the organization and paid a visit. At their first meeting, Anja and her mother were scared, “But we felt more at ease [afterward] because we heard other people’s feelings.”
Anja said that before attending POMC meetings, she felt lost, with no direction. The unexpected death practically destroyed her.

A year later, however, she became a board member and a speaker. “I realized that my voice is important and that I am my brother’s voice,” she said. She shares Jesse’s story with kids in gangs or who are at high risk.

Although the passing of her brother had no gang affiliation, she hopes to help youth find life outside violence — even if it means making a difference to just one.

On a particular occasion, a teen made that hope a reality.

“I ended up following up with this teen after my presentation. He was in gangs and was a school dropout,” Anja explained. After hearing her presentation, he opted to get out of gangs and soon will be graduating.  

“Everything I say and do comes from my heart because I sincerely want to see change in people. I don’t want any other family to go through what I went through.”

In addition to donating time to POMC, Anja volunteers for Operation Peaceworks of Oxnard, a youth outreach program aimed at reducing gang violence. She speaks at the Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo as well as at the Probation Office, where kids on probation are joined by their parents in workshops that facilitate and educate.

Her brother, Jesse, is survived by his 14-year-old son, Jesse Cardenas Jr. Although he misses his father a lot, being among family makes him never feel alone. “We will always be there for him no matter what,” Anja said.

On occasion, Anja stops by Second Street to ponder and remember. “I don’t know what I’m looking for or trying to see. It’s just an impulse,” she said.

Her brother’s case remains unsolved with no clues to lead to his murderer. “Time doesn’t heal,” she explains. “Each year that passes is how long he’s not with us, and knowing his case is not solved makes it double worse.”

She advised never to wait until something bad happens to make changes and to be more involved in the community. “If you know someone who is grieving, encourage them to seek help, to not be afraid to speak,” she said. “Their story may impact someone else in ways they never thought possible.”

On Dec. 27, 2011, Jesse would have turned 36.

Local Hero is an ongoing project, featuring local residents who have made exceptional contributions for their communities. If you know of someone you feel should be featured as a Local Hero, please e-mail at editorial@vcreporter.com or kcfarfan@yahoo.com. For more on the person of the week, go to vcreporter.com.

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