Clovis community remembers three young conservation corps employees

Justin Van Meter. [Photo contributed]


Rhonda Shackelford. [Photo contributed]
By Valerie Shelton | Editor

On Feb. 2, 2016, three young adults, all former Clovis Unified students, passed away after a car accident near Reedley. Rhonda Shackelford, 20, Justin Van Meter, 21, and Serena Guadarrama, 18, were all employees of the California Conservation Corps and were traveling to a job site when the tragic accident occurred.

All three have been described by those in the community as fun, caring and motivated individuals who were excited to join the California Conservation Corps and embark on new careers.

Justin Van Meter was a 2013 graduate of Clovis West High School. According to a go fund me campaign set up by his family, he was “a great son, grandson, brother and cousin. He enjoyed video games, spending time at the beach and hanging out with family and friends.”

Teachers and staff members from Clovis West remember Van Meter fondly and some saw him just weeks before the accident, as he had returned to his alma mater to sign up as a volunteer.

Anthony Persons, a special education teacher at Clovis West, said Van Meter was optimistic and excited about the career he just started with the CCC.

Serena Guadarrama. [Photo contributed]
“Justin was one the hardest working students I ever had the honor of knowing,” Persons said. “He was inspiring. He was always optimistic and never tired. He recently contacted me and came to Clovis West to visit. He wanted me to know that he had finally figured out what he wanted to do as a career. He showed up in his CCC uniform. He could barely contain his excitement as he shared all about the program and about some of the projects he had done. We had talked about him coming and giving a presentation to the Vocational Education students about the CCC, but he never got the chance. He did come and turn in his paperwork in order to volunteer in my special education class. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

Instructional Assistant Angie Mewhirter said she collaborated in some of Van Meter’s classes at Clovis West and got to know him over the four years he was a student.

“He was such a kind, thoughtful, hard working young man, and I thoroughly enjoyed him,” Mewhirter said. “I ran into Justin in November 2015, three years following his graduation, and was excited to catch up with all he had been doing since high as beaming as he explained that his dream had been reached at last. He went on to explain the CCC protocol and plan for his first year. I was so happy for him. The news of the accident was, and still is devastating to me. I am so very sorry for the loss of this fine young man, as well as the two ladies who lost their lives in the accident. My prayers go out to their families, and especially to the Van Meters.”

Van Meter’s freshman academic counselor Janet Duke also saw him on his last visit to Clovis West.

“I had just visited with Justin two weeks before his death when he initially came by Clovis West to see if he could share his CCC experiences with some of our students,” Duke said. “We chatted at lunch and he was so happy.  He said he had finally found his “niche” in life and the CCC was what he was meant to do in life.  Justin remarked, ‘I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, I love working with the CCC.’ He was so proud of his uniform and working for such a worthwhile organization. His passing is such a loss for all of us.”

Rhonda Shackelford was also from Clovis. She was a graduate of Clovis East High School and was taking courses at Clovis Community College. Her mother, Ruth Shackelford, said her daughter had a joyful, beautiful soul.

“She lived every moment as it was her last and made sure those around her did the same,” Shackelford said. “She loved people, kids and animals and they loved her back. She was a free spirit and did not judge others. She held no grudges. She was loved by so many people and touched many hearts. She will be missed.”

Rhonda is survived by her parents Ron and Ruth Shackelford, her brother Thomas Dwyer, her grandmother Mary “Betty Fickle and several aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

Cho Vang, a guidance counselor at Clovis East, said she was shocked and saddened to hear of Shackelford’s passing.

“She was such a sweet young lady, full of life, and she was always smiling,” Cho said. “That smile of hers brought our the best in students, teachers and staff on campus.”

Clovis East teacher Mignon Etcheverry said she met Shackelford when she started at Clovis East as a freshman and she had her in classes over the next four years. She recalls watching over Shackelford’s skateboard and a time when Shackelford brought her some tacos for lunch.

“I will always remember her as a sweet young lady who always had a smile to give when she walked into the classroom,” Etcheverry said. “Rhonda loved to skateboard so I was the proud protector of her board during school hours since she didn’t want to carry it from class to class. She would bring it to me every morning before school started and never missed saying thank you. By the end of the day when she would come to retrieve the board, she would always have some story to tell me about how her day had gone. Rhonda was always positive and always eager to help others. She loved her family and friends. When Rhonda was old enough to go off campus for lunch, she would always offer to bring me something back. Of course, I always brought a lunch and never took her up on the offer. On day, however, she overheard me say that I had forgotten my lunch. Half way through the lunch period, my door opens and Rhonda walks in with tacos from Taco Bell for the both of us. We sat in my room eating those tacos and laughing together. I will miss Rhonda and her smile, but mostly her enthusiasm for life. There is indeed, one more angel in heaven.”

Serena Guadarrama was former student at Gateway High School. According to a go fund me campaign page created by her family, Guadarrama had just turned 18 and “was very proud to be working to help provide for herself and would often walk miles to the bus stop at 5 a.m. to get to work.”

The Roundup was unable to get a hold of Guadarrama’s family members or friends, but assemblyman Jim Patterson, who adjourned a California State Assembly meeting on Feb. 8 in honor of the three young CCC workers described her as being a mentor and volunteer.

“She was a mentor to her classmates at Gateway High School and she volunteered at a local shelter for survivors of domestic violence,” Patterson said. “She was determined to make a better life for herself and she did so with humor and a beautiful smile.”

All three families set up go fund me campaigns to help raise funds for funeral expenses. The campaigns are still active. To donate to the family of Justin Van Meter, visit https://www.gofundme.com/y9muwxb4 To donate to the family of Rhonda Shackelford, visit https://www.gofundme.com/beautifulrhonda To donate to the family of Serena Guadarrama, visit https://www.gofundme.com/rmmtgtn8