DENVER — A little boy's tragic death has brought his school community together with a common goal of finding ways to honor him.
The body of 7-year-old Caden McWilliams was found in a storage unit two days before Christmas 2018, but police believe he died months earlier. He previously attended Ellis Elementary School where a former teacher described him as a model student with a sweet smile. She said he was one of those students that all the other kids wanted to be friends with.
"I would've never, never guessed that this would've happened to such a sweet, kind boy," said Christina Hafler, one of his teachers. "He always came to school with a smile on his face, always."
Hafler and other parents can't understand how a little boy could be missing for months without anyone realizing it.
"I do believe he was let down," said Brooke Webb, a parent with a young daughter at Ellis Elementary School.
Court records show the boy's mother, Elisha Pankey, unenrolled him from Denver Public Schools in the fall of 2018 and said he would be home-schooled. Police believe he died sometime in July according to a conversation Pankey had with a fellow inmate where she allegedly described how the boy was kept in carrier meant for transporting animals.
School records show the last time he attended class was in May, meaning he was already dead by the time his mother told the district she would be teaching him at home.
"I mean it's impossible to process," said Hafler. "It's been impossible for the kids here to process. It's been impossible for the staff to process."
Halfer and Webb are working on several ideas in hopes of making sure the little boy is remembered. Their short-term plan includes a memorial at the school, but they want to focus on changing state law in hopes of helping other kids in dangerous situations.
"There was nothing being done you know there was no memorial planned," said Webb.
The school community would like to see a memorial bench for Caden at the elementary school he loved so much. Webb envisions a quiet place with a tree and a plaque where kids could remember their classmate. In addition to the bench, his former teacher wants to have a mural painted on the wall outside the school in the boy's honor. She wants students to be involved in the artwork as a way of helping them cope with the tragedy.
"A lot of the kids really knew him very well, and they deserve to have a place where they can go and remember his memory and his spirit," said Hafler.
There's been an outpouring of support from the surrounding neighborhood too. A community beer taping at Esters Neighborhood Pub will raise money for the memorial. The event will be held on April 6 beginning at 3:00 p.m. at the restaurant's Holly Street location. Ellis Elementary PTO also started aGoFundMe page.
“It hits way too close to home for me not to want to do something," said Webb.
Webb is already reaching out to legislators in hopes of changing safe haven laws to include older children. She says many people are familiar with the concept of dropping a newborn baby off at fire station if they are unable to care for it and believes there's a way to put in place a similar policy for older kids.
"If you have a baby and you can't take care of it you can drop it off with no questions asked," said Webb. "Why isn't that the same for Caden, for a 7-year-old?"
His former teacher would like to see different policies for kids who are being homeschooled. She believes the procedures need to be reviewed and someone needs to see or talk with a child before the parents take that student out of school.
"We really wanted to make sure that somebody stood up for him, somebody was there to honor him and make sure that he was memorialized in a proper way," said Hafler.