How One Parkland Family Is Supporting the Students' Fight Against the NRA

After losing their son in the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the Olivers are turning Joaquin’s memory into a mission

At Pine Trails Park, where the community gathered in the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, there are 17 blue, nylon shade structures — the kind Walmart sells as "instant gazebos" for $20 — staked out over each cross or Star of David to protect them from the Florida sun. From a distance, it looks more like a track meet than a makeshift memorial.

While the school was still cordoned off with crime scene tape, the park is where the students came to hold moments of silence and vigils and to mourn. Two weeks after the fact, there are piles upon piles of supermarket flowers (dried out now), puddles of wax where candles used to be, and signs so sun-bleached and water-damaged you can barely make out their messages. (“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed,” one weathered poster board reads.)

Among the flowers collected at the foot of each memorial are stuffed animals, letters, and trinkets and treats. There’s a swim cap perched on the top Nicholas Dworet’s cross, white chocolate Kit Kats at its foot; a Westpoint pennant leans against Peter Wang’s; Cheez-Its, penne pasta and parmesan cheese decorate Jaime Guttenberg’s. There is cake with teal frosting (her favorite color) at Carmen Schentrup’s — she was a week away from her 17th birthday. Joaquin Oliver’s cross is draped with rosaries and a jersey; below it, a little basketball is nestled among the votive candles.

Joaquin, from a very early age, loved basketball. Last year, his dad, who has alway been more into art than sports, helped him edit a home video of himself as a five-year-old — dribbling and talking trash and sinking shots in their driveway — into a highlight reel backed by the Space Jam theme. A week before he died, Joaquin was so happy when Dwayne Wade was traded back to Miami, that his family saw fit to bury him wearing Wade’s jersey. (When he heard, Wade dedicated his season to Joaquin; the next night, wearing sneakers with Joaquin’s name written on them, he played his best game all season.)

Joaquin didn’t play for the school, but every year for the past five years, he has played in the Parkland recreational league. This year, before the season started, he called his dad, Manuel, at the office and asked him for a favor. "'You need to be the coach,' he says. Out of nowhere," Manuel recalls. When he asked why, he remembers his son saying, "Because I know who to pick for the team. There’s going to be a coach’s meeting for the draft and I’m going to let you know who to pick."

Manuel agreed, and they drafted all Joaquin’s friends. Kids, his mom Patricia says, a lot like him — "Very assertive, you know? Like explosive."

Manuel nods. "Rebel kids."

After the shooting at the high school, the league suspended the season, but before that, during a game about two months ago, something happened that Manuel has been thinking about a lot the last two weeks.

He didn’t see the play, but referee called a foul on Joaquin, and Joaquin started arguing with him. This particular ref, he felt, had always had a grudge against him. "He keeps complaining, he turns around to the crowd and says, "Did you see that?" And this is Joaquin, okay? — the crowd loves him." They holler and whistle, Manuel says, and Joaquin is ejected from the game.

"He throws a water, sits next to me," Manuel recalls. "Turns to me and says, 'What are you going to do now? You’ve got to cover my back, and I’ll cover your back.'" So after the game, Manuel spoke to the ref, and when he didn’t get very far, he took the issue up with the vice president of the league. He told him that he either wanted a different referee, or a representative from the league present to monitor the games and make sure the calls were fair.

That moment on the bench is the one Manuel has kept returning to in the weeks since he lost his son. "There’s no way you can have a fair game if the other team is giving money to the ref — all those calls are going to be against our team," he says, speaking now about the gun lobby and the power it wields over politicians in Tallahassee and Washington. "What happened that night is actually what is happening right now. The calls have been made by a ref that is receiving money from the other team. And all we want is a fair game."

So, on Tuesday, the night that would have been the league playoffs, Manuel, Patricia, their daughter Andrea and the whole team were at the basketball court to announce the creation of a nonprofit they’re founding in Joaquin’s memory. It’s called Change the Ref. The organization’s mission is to empower future leaders, like the classmates of Joaquin’s who are speaking out about gun control. 

"We’re going to follow these kids," Manuel says. "It’s their fight. And I think they’re doing a great job — we’re seeing people already changing their mind."