Fennville honors Wes Leonard

Updated: May 25, 2012, 1:41 AM ET
Associated Press

FENNVILLE, Mich. -- Jocelyn Leonard stood near the front of the gym, leading the choir at Fennville High School.

In her left hand, she held a graduation cap -- for Wes.

The pain is still difficult to bear -- especially during a week like this. Nearly 15 months ago, Jocelyn's son collapsed and died immediately after making the winning shot in a basketball game in this same gym. On Thursday night, Wes Leonard's class held its graduation ceremony.

He died on that court. And this is where we go to celebrate.

-- Jocelyn Leonard, mother of late Wes Leonard

"He died on that court," Jocelyn Leonard said in an interview with The Associated Press the previous night. "And this is where we go to celebrate."

Leonard's death last March 3 drew national attention to Fennville, a town of about 1,400 not far from Lake Michigan, some 200 miles west of Detroit. A medical examiner determined Leonard had sudden cardiac arrest caused by an enlarged heart.

On Thursday, his classmates honored him. Selena Beltran-Pena, one of Leonard's friends, had planned to walk with him at graduation. She was accompanied instead by Leonard's younger brother, 14-year-old Mitchell.

It was Beltran-Pena who presented Jocelyn with the graduation cap. And a couple of the night's speakers made a point of paying respects to both Wes Leonard and Nathaniel Hernandez, another Fennville student who died in the past few years.

"Today I ask you all to live every day as if it were your last," said Guadalupe Morales, the valedictorian.

Since Wes died, Jocelyn Leonard has immersed herself in a cause, helping raise money to provide automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to schools in Michigan. But graduation week has been particularly tough on her.

"I've been pretty strong," she said the night before the ceremony. "This one's going to be tough."

Jocelyn Leonard teaches choir at Fennville.

"This has been a horrible week. Horrible," she said. "It's even worse than Christmas. ... I teach these kids. I see them in my classroom every day. These kids couldn't be more loving."

After the choir finished its performance Thursday night, Jocelyn exchanged hugs with graduating members of the singing group.

The Wes Leonard Heart Team was set up in Leonard's memory to honor children who have lost their lives to sudden cardiac arrest and help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

"If you have an AED, you can give someone a chance," Jocelyn Leonard said. "That's just what we want."

Leonard says her group has spent over $100,000 and helped provide over 50 AEDs to schools in Michigan. The group hopes to raise more money. A golf outing is planned for next month, and Jocelyn is hoping that at some point every high school in Michigan will play a basketball game at the same time -- with enough proceeds to enable all schools to have their own AEDs.

Last year, Leonard's family met with Travis Kvapil before a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Michigan. Kvapil's No. 38 Ford carried the logo of the Wes Leonard Heart Team on its rear quarter panels.

Jocelyn Leonard talks emotionally about the outpouring of support -- President Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder are among those who have reached out to the family.

The Wes Leonard Heart Team has been lobbying for legislation to provide schools with AEDs and training to help prevent sudden cardiac arrest in athletes.

"We really shouldn't have to be doing this for them," Jocelyn Leonard said. "These schools should already have these."


Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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