Published on October 28th, 2016 | by Jaredan Levin


Samo Community Remembers Vanai Jelks

PHOTO ABOVE:  Etienne Montesino (’20), Iainn Carcamo (’20), Vanai Jelks and Christine Taghizadeh (’20) take a break between performances at the DTSAC Fall Festival held Saturday, October 22.  photo by Richard Levis-Fitzgerald, contributor

photo by Nico Young

MICHIGAN TRIBUTE:  Adjacent to the Michigan gate, a memorial for Vanai is displayed.  This is one of a variety of rememberances posted around campus.  photo by Nico Young, Managing Editor


Remembered as a positive, kind and bubbly student, S-House sophomore Vanai Jelks, 15, died Tuesday night. The cause of her death is not known at this time. Home going Services for Vanai Jelks will be held this Saturday, Nov. 19, 11:00 AM at Inglewood Park Cemetery. Address: 720 East Florence Ave., Golden West Galleria Chapel.

News of Vanai’s death began to spread on the campus Wednesday afternoon, and by Thursday morning, tributes to Vanai began to appear around campus. Blue and yellow balloons and a memorial sign decorated the school entrance on Michigan. Festooning her locker and the surrounding walls in the English building was a multi-colored display of notes from students and staff celebrating Vanai as a young woman who “made anyone’s bad day immediately better” and describing her as a “ball of light” and a “kind spirit and beautiful soul”.  

Doug Kim, head coach of the girls basketball team, described her as the “once-in-a-lifetime” student whose life and death has affected him deeply.

“I think the lessons that you learn from her will be ones that we carry on for the rest of our lives–in not letting anything stand in your way to achieve your goal,” Kim said. “I think that’s the best way to remember her. When other people were ready to quit, she wouldn’t quit. She never gave up.”

Vanai’s basketball teammates, who wore their jerseys on Thursday in memory of their teammate, #44,  praised her as multi-talented and unphased by any challenge.

“She was always trying her best in anything whether it was basketball, music, acting, school,” basketball team member Davian Schroer (’20) said. “The first memory I have of her was her crying because she didn’t make the basketball team [after the first try-out], but her determination pushed her through, and she made it.”

According to fellow students and friends, Vanai applied the same dedication to drama and music, as she was a violinist in Samo’s Intermezzo Orchestra and played the part of the Queen of Hearts in Lincoln Middle School’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” when she was in the eighth grade..   

Vanai continued to develop her acting skills at Samo, where was a member of the Acting I class, which recently competed in the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California (DTASC) Fall Festival at James Monroe High School in North Hills on Oct. 22. Vanai and her acting partner Christine Taghizadeh (’20) reached the semi-finals in the Women’s Playwrights Category with a performance from the play “1331” by Kim Dunbar.

“I can vividly see the huge smiles on Vanai and Christine when they were running back from the announcer to tell us that they have advanced to the semi-finals,” Samo parent and chaperone for the field trip Richard Levis-Fitzgerald said. “These two were the only two that advanced from Samo. [There were] huge smiles all day on that Saturday.”

photo by Nico Young

MEMORY WALL:  On the first floor of the English building, a commemoration of Vanai’s life rests on and above her locker.  photo by Nico Young, Managing Editor


On Friday, Oct. 28, at the opening of “The Crucible”, Samohi Theatre will be collecting donations to pay tribute to her and her family.

Her ninth grade teachers remember not only her determined work ethic, but also her kindness to other students.

English teacher Tisha Reichle recounted how Vanai was always helping other students during her English 9 class last year.

“There was always a boy sitting next to her who didn’t have out his handout and she would show it to him and say, ‘Get this out. This is what you need,’ or she would look at the one to her left and the one to her right and the one across from her and say, ‘Your calendar, get it out before Ms. Reichle yells at you!’” said Reichle.

Math teacher Arthur Russell, who was also Vanai’s neighbor, remembers Vanai’s drive to improve in math that not only brought her to his classroom for extra help, but also to his house.

“She was always on top of her work; if she didn’t understand anything she would ask questions so she was just an all around well-rounded student,” Russell said. “I would see her, because she stayed downstairs from me, when I came home, and if she had a question, she would stop me while I’m coming into the house to ask me a question.”

Mr. Russell has started a GoFundMe account to help with the cost of the burial. If anyone would like to contribute, the link is:

“If I had a daughter, I would want my daughter to be like her,” Russell said. “She was very smart, athletic, very respectful; probably one of the most respectful kids I have ever met. If I had a daughter, I would want her to be exactly like Vanai.”

Jordan Steigelfest contributed to this report.

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