Alexis Echavarria, 16, a film student at Idyllwild Arts Academy, who was recognized by faculty as one of their most promising film makers, died very suddenly and without warning in the early morning of Thursday, Aug. 4 at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. He had just returned from serving a four-week stint as a community service volunteer in Thailand, aiding — among other responsibilities — tsunami-affected children, their families, and helping to rebuild a devastated infrastructure.
According to his parents, Tony and Christina Echavarria, Alexis had boarded the plane in Bangkok with a fever. With changes in Seoul and Tokyo, the flight lasted about 22 hours. On arriving home, he complained of stiff muscles but according to his father, was in a fine mood and on an emotional high because of how meaningful his volunteer work had been for him.
His parents took him to the doctor on Tuesday, Aug. 2 for what did not appear to be extraordinary symptoms. By Wednesday he was admitted to Saint John’s for treatment for dehydration and was preliminarily diagnosed with harm to his kidneys.
Later on Wednesday, the hospital did more routine tests with results to be reported when available. Wednesday night, his parents said goodnight to Alexis at around 11:30, unaware that his condition was acutely serious or life-threatening.
At 3:30 a.m., Alexis’ father received a call that his son was in trouble. On the way to the hospital, the hospital called his cell phone and informed him that Alexis had died from a heart attack likely prompted by kidney failure and flooding of the lungs.
Idyllwild Arts Headmaster Bill Lowman, students and faculty were devastated at Alexis’ death, especially inasmuch as it was totally unexpected. Working together in growing artistic abilities creates strong bonds among the students and faculty at Idyllwild Arts.
Lowman spoke for all in saying, “All of us are shocked and saddened by the tragic passing of this extraordinary young man. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family” he said.
In an interview with his parents, Christina and Tony both seemed extraordinarily at peace, grateful that he had made it home from Thailand and that his two trips volunteering among Thailand’s poor had awakened in him a profoundly deep spirituality and sense of his life’s mission.
As his mother said, “It would have been a nightmare had we not been able to see him and be with him” just before his passing. Arriving home with his exuberant sense of being fulfilled by his experience and certain that his path was in assisting and caring for the less fortunate, Alexis helped his family find some sense of closure.
Christina described how several years ago, Alexis came to her seriously announcing, “Mom, I want to make a difference in somebody’s life. I want to do community service. I want to work with children.” He was 13 or 14 at the time.
His mom helped him research service Web sites here and abroad, and Alexis chose the Duang Prateep Foundation in Thailand. Something about the site and Thailand attracted him. He went last year for the first time and upon returning told his parents both “that it was the most phenomenal thing in my life,” and that “I think I have found my purpose.” Christina said that all he could think about during his interim year was going back.
He returned this summer where his work also encompassed aid for those affected by last year’s catastrophic tsunami. Each trip to Thailand, he took his filmmaking equipment, including lights, intending to create a documentary about the effects of poverty and deprivation among Thailand’s poor. He had planned to go back after finishing Idyllwild Arts for an extended year of community service.
His sister Mystral, a 2005 Idyllwild Arts interdisciplinary graduate, said that while in Thailand, Alexis had become fascinated with the Thai expression “nam jai” which means an outpouring of the heart. That expression so resonated with him that it became his mantra, one which he had tattooed just below his navel. In Eastern energy practices, the place below the navel is called the “dan tien,” the place where one’s uniquely definitional energetic power or “qi” is stored.
At a memorial service held in Bel-Air, there was celebration for his life as he choose to live it, his gifts as a creative artist and exemplary person, stories and laughter, and abiding sadness that his voice is silenced. Many of his colleagues at Idyllwild Arts flew in to honor him. His mother remembered one of the students saying that if anybody was spiritually ready to go, it was Alexis.
On Wednesday night prior to Alexis’ early-morning passing, Brad Battersby, Idyllwild Arts Moving Picture Department head, informed the Echavarrias that the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, a premiere showcase for short films, had accepted Alexis’ film, “18 minutes.”
Even the content of the film was presciently evocative, according to Pam Pierce who along with Moving Pictures faculty member Ira Abrams helped Alexis develop the script and film. “18 minutes” was about “taking every moment you are alive to love,” she said.
Alexis Echavarria’s birthday would have been Aug. 29 and he would have returned to Idyllwild Arts as a senior. He was to have been the first recipient of the Cinestory Mentors Award for an exceptional Idyllwild Arts screenwriter.
As a bittersweet post note, when the family received Battersby’s evening call informing them of the Palm Springs Festival’s acceptance of Alexis’ entry, they decided to wait until the morning to tell him, knowing that they would see him and that it would be a great start for a new day.
Although that new day never arrived for Alexis, his mother said of his film’s acceptance, “He knows.”
What happened to Alexis in predominantly Buddhist Thailand profoundly changed him, awakening in him a deep spiritually clearly evident to his family, and allowing the family to find something greater than rational acceptance of his unexpected passing. They believe that Alexis’ interaction with the Thai people and their practice of living their beliefs of serving others, compassion, humility and selflessness prepared him for his last journey and for their understanding of what happened.
Tony, Christina and their daughter Mystral request that donations to honor Alexis be made either to a memorial fund that will be established in honor of Alexis at Idyllwild Arts or to Duang Prateep Foundation, c/o Flame of Hope Foundation, P.O. Box 32, Viroqua, WI 54665.