Oakdale Elementary School went green on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. But not in an environmental sense --nearly 600 students and staff were literally covered with the verdant shade.
Students, staff, teachers and administrators arrived at school that morning, clad in green as a way to celebrate the life of Devin Aryal, a fourth-grader who died after being killed in a drive-by shooting last year. Green was his favorite color.
Aryal, 9, was riding in his mother’s minivan when Nhan Lap Tran, 34, of Oakdale began randomly shooting at cars near the intersection of Seventh Street and Hadley Avenue in Oakdale on Feb. 11, 2013. One of the bullets hit Aryal in the head. He was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where he died.
Several other people were also injured in the attack, including Aryal’s mother, Melissa, who was shot in the arm but survived.
Tran, who had a history of mental illness, was charged with one count of second-degree intentional murder, one count of second-degree felony murder during an assault, one count of first degree assault and two counts of second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon. He has been deemed incompetent to stand trial three times and is currently being held at the state mental hospital in St. Peter.
What Would Devin Do?
Aryal’s fourth-grade teacher, Melissa Helmick, headed up the group of teachers who organized the day of celebration. She says Aryal enjoyed school and had dreams of becoming an astronaut one day.
“Devin loved everything about school. He was a positive kid and always came into school with a smile on his face every morning,” Helmick recalls. “He loved science and math. I remember one day in class after a long-division lesson he was one of the few kids who was still smiling.”
The 9-year-old had already taken a strong stance on a hot-button issue, Helmick says.
“Devin was such a good friend ... honest and kind. He was very anti-bullying and was a big advocate for making sure kids were included,” she said.
At Aryal’s funeral service last year at Guardian Angels Catholic Church, the Rev. Rodger Bauman mentioned the idea of “WWDD?” or “What Would Devin Do?”
“It’s for if you see someone being bullied or excluded ... to think of what could you do to be a better friend, like Devin would have done,” Helmick explains.
Keeping this in mind, school staff decided to celebrate Aryal’s spirit of inclusion by inviting the whole school to wear his favorite color on the anniversary of his death.
As a part of the day of remembrance, kids participating in the Adventure Connection after-school program made bracelets adorned with a green bead, for the whole school to remind students to be inclusive and a friend to all – just as Devin would have been.
Special day for a special kid
Buhl says the day was “pretty special” for everyone at the school, especially for the students who were in Devin’s class when he died.
“Although I was not here last year, I knew this would be a day to remember and honor this young life that was taken too soon,” she says. “There are many staff and students here that needed this time to honor Devin and heal from the sadness of this tragic and senseless situation.”
About 90 percent of the school was wearing green Feb. 11, Helmick says. “It was so cool to walk down the hallway and see everyone walking in the hallways wearing green.”
The Oakdale Rainbow Foods, which is located near the intersection of Hadley Avenue and Tenth Street where the shooting occurred, donated and distributed green colored cookies for the whole school at lunch time.
Students were also encouraged to write letters, draw pictures or make cards for Aryal, which were given to his mother as a keepsake. Helmick decorated a box with images of some of Aryal’s favorite things -– soccer, space and Spider-Man – and put it in the hallway so people could add their pictures, cards, letters and even Valentines.
“Tons of students put something in the box,” Helmick says. “It was absolutely filled.”
Helmick says despite the sadness of having lost such a promising young life, the day of remembrance was positive for the school.
“We wanted to think of a respectful and positive way to remember him. Devin was a good friend to everyone and had an amazing presence,” Helmick says. “He was just that kind of person.”
Johanna Holub can be reached at email@example.com  or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.