On the night before the grieving town of Uvalde moved forward into a new school year, one victim's family went back — to the last place they were all together before tragedy struck.
Walking through the doors of her West Texas home, Julissa Cazares Rizo, 48, remembers as if it was yesterday: Her 9-year-old niece and goddaughter, Jacklyn "Jackie" Cazares, gliding from room to room showing off her pristine white dress as the family celebrated her First Communion.
"She was just so happy," Julissa told TODAY Parents. "I kept hugging her and telling her, 'Baby girl, this is all for you.' She would just smile and gaze at you with her beautiful eyes."
A week later, Jackie — who loved singing and the color green, and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian — was shot and killed inside her fourth grade classroom, along with 18 of her fellow classmates and two teachers. Her communion celebration was the last time the entire family was together.
As the city of Uvalde prepared for the first day of school, Jackie's aunts and uncles, grandparents and extended family gathered in the home where they celebrated Jackie's First Communion.
"Coming here, in this home — especially in the living room — she's everywhere," Julissa said. "Upstairs in our bathroom — when we brought our dogs she would always ask to give them a bath. I just can't get myself to get in that tub anymore. I just feel her. I can see her sitting there, bathing them in our tub."
Around the dining room table, as Jackie's abuelita (grandma) and tias (aunts) made flowers for Diá De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead, a celebration honoring loved ones who have died) and uncle Manuel Rizo, 50 — notorious in the family for being unable to sit still — cooked burgers and carnitas, the family shared memories of that last day:
Manuel letting Jackie eat Nutella while wearing her white dress; her racing up and down the stairs; every tight, never-let-you go hug she gave; the spot in the kitchen where she cut strawberries by herself for fruit cups.
"I tried to grab a strawberry," Julissa recalled. "She didn't say anything, but her look said it all: 'There's just enough, don't touch.'"
I kept hugging her and telling her, ‘Baby girl, this is all for you.’
Julissa Cazares Rizo
White vincas were used as decoration — the same flowers Jackie had at her baptism. "Simple and beautiful," Julissa said. "Just like her."
Now that flower is everywhere, her family said, bringing them comfort.
"Her flowers are in my backyard and I make sure I take care of them," Juanita told TODAY. "They're the first thing you see when you look out the window into my backyard — those pretty flowers."
Abuelita Paulita Cazares, 77 — the matriarch of the family whose grandchildren revolve around her like she's the sun — remembered all the times Jackie proclaimed her beans and barbacoa to be the very best. Uncle Manuel recalled the moment when Jackie coerced him into giving an impromptu blessing during her communion celebration, despite his trepidation.
"She called out for me, 'Oh, Godfather! Oh Godfather!' I had no choice," Manuel told TODAY. "So I gave a blessing and I even stopped and looked at her. She had a big smile on her face."
Soon, his phone was out — the proud godfather swiping through every picture of Jackie smiling alongside her loved ones.
I haven't been able to dance. Part of me died on May 24.
Uncle Jesse Rizo, 51, walked to the living room. It's where he shared a dance with Jackie. Jackie had said she didn't know how to dance, so Jesse said he'd teach her the 2-step. There's a video of the pair gliding back and forth, Jackie practicing her pirouette as her dress twirled through the air.
"I haven't been able to dance" since then, Jesse told TODAY. "Part of me died on May 24."
'You cannot explain the huge hole in your heart'
As laughter bounced off the walls, the family talked about Uvalde's return to school.
Julissa shared the family's concern for Jackie's parents, Javier and Gloria, who were too exhausted to attend the family gathering before school began. "They're overwhelmed," Julissa said. "They're just tired."
In the midst of their grief, Javier and Gloria had to prepare Jackie's sister Jazmin, 17, to return to school. Julissa says Jazmin wanted to go back in person — she's strong, her aunt Jaunita added, and she didn't like virtual learning.
"Not only did they lose a child but they have a child going back to the same school district and have to worry about her well-being," Julissa explained. "How are they supposed to trust anyone after everything that has occurred? They're lost. They're really lost."
Hundreds of law enforcement officers responded to the scene on May 24, and waited for 77 minutes to confront the shooter as wounded and dying children and teachers were inside. The school police chief has since been fired, and a report released last month by a Texas House committee blamed "systemic errors and egregiously poor decision making" by both law enforcement and the school board.
"I'll be honest, if I was living here and I had children (in the Uvalde) district, I would not send them," Julissa said.
After three months, the district has not finished implementing new safety measures, including erecting non-scalable fencing around Uvalde schools. Some of the same officers who responded to the school shooting on May 24 are returning to guard the campuses, reported local broadcast station KENS5.
TODAY reached out to the city of Uvalde and the Uvalde police department for comment but did not hear back at the time of publication.
In addition to their safety concerns, the family says it's impossible to not think about what Jackie would be doing right now if she hadn't been killed.
Jackie loved school, Julissa said. Her nephew, who was in school with Jackie and saw her before the gunman attacked, told the family how Jackie seemed in her final moments.
“She looked happy,” Julissa recalled her nephew saying. “She was just happy.”
Jackie's family says she would be sending her aunts text messages about her new teachers, and worrying about how cute she looked in her new school outfits.
"You cannot explain in words the huge hole that is in your heart," Jackie's aunt Janie Cazares, 58, added, "knowing that none of these children will be able to go back and see their friends and buy school supplies."
The family says they'll fill the void as best they can by supporting Jackie's parents and giving the same kind of hugs their niece and granddaughter gave — the kind where she just molded into you.
"We're going to live in the moment," Janie said. "I went through a lot of pictures and I just hadn't realized how much she was in everybody's life. She gave those Jackie hugs to everyone. And every single one of us is affected. Her uncle, he isn't here right now, but we've been married for 40 years and I've never seen him this way."
Fighting like Jackie would fight
Like many of the victim's families in the wake of the tragedy, Jackie's loved ones have been advocating for accountability and policy changes, including demanding the resignation of school board members, investigations into law enforcement, transparency and gun legislation.
"What a lot of people don't understand is that these families are fighting for not just for their own child — they're fighting for every child," Julissa said.
"Exactly, so that this will not be experienced by another mother who has a child killed by an assault rifle," Janie added. "There is unity in this community, and that's important. People are supporting each other and trying to help in this fight and journey for justice. It's not going to take a year or two years. We're going to be here for the long haul."
Jackie's uncle Jesse has been vocal at school board meetings, and says that before he speaks he talks to Jackie, asking her to guide him.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that these families are fighting for not just for their own child — they’re fighting for every child.
Julissa Cazares Rizo
"I ask her to come with me," he said. "I envision her holding my hand, and ask her to let her words come out. I feel her presence. And one thing I keep in mind is that she was peaceful, loving, affection, compassionate — all those things. The last thing we want to do is go to a battle and bring anger, because that wasn't her. She would win a war through hugs. That's how she would take it to them."
As the family wrapped carnitas to go and said their goodbyes, Manuel prepared to check on the elementary school across the street — he noticed the grass had not been cut and worried the non-scaleable fencing had not been fully installed.
He knows his niece will never enter that school, but wants the children who will to feel safe.
The family hugged their goodbyes, still watching over their community and walking forward together — guided by the beloved daughter, granddaughter and niece they say is forever watching over them.