DeKALB – Tyler Elementary School Principal Lissette Jacobson has vivid memories of Ezra Hill Jr. trying to teach her new dance moves like the Floss, the Shoot, even the Orange Justice.
Ezra was better at them, though.
“It would be very rare to see Ezra and not see a smile on his face,” Jacobson said. “He was always moving, dancing. He was a great dancer. He was very much into the Fortnite dances and he was very good.”
Ezra died Monday from gunshot wounds he suffered Saturday in the Chicago suburb of Harvey while with his father. Ezra, 10, was in a car with his father in front of their home when another car pulled up, fired at them, and then drove away, police said.
With many in the community struggling to deal with the unexpected and tragic loss, DeKalb School District 428 officials decided to open Tyler, where Ezra was a fourth-grader in Julia O’Hara’s class, to make counselors, psychologists and comfort dogs available. Fifteen families came to the school Wednesday, officials said.
Among them were Brandon Daub and his son, Tyler. Daub coaches youth wrestling in DeKalb, and Ezra had success in the 95-pound weight class. He also garnered the respect of his coaches and developed a close, personal friendship with Tyler.
“He was at my house playing with Tyler [on] Thursday before [Ezra] went to HIS dad’s,” Daub said. “They were having a great time, jumping on the trampoline. We had to take him home and that’s the last I got to see him.”
Daub said that Ezra was the kid who was always helping everyone, and had the attitude needed to excel.
“My son had his best year ever because of Ezra,” he said. “Ezra was one of those kids that I was like, ‘I’m not going to be easy on you, I’m going to make you work and push you to get better.’”
Tyler Daub added to the sentiment in an email to the Daily Chronicle.
“Ezra was a great friend and a great partner. And he pushed me to my best wrestling season ever,” Tyler Daub said. “He was always making jokes and he treated everyone like family. And he supported all our friends. And I miss him a lot. And I am proud to say I was in the same wrestling club as Ezra.”
Just as Ezra got along with kids his own age, adults saw him take to younger kids in a unique way.
“His mom [Drea Harden] shared that he loved little kids, too,” Jacobson said. “He was very protective of them and got along with them very, very well. He was just a happy, bright, resilient kid.”
A pair of friendly golden retriever therapy dogs were on hand Wednesday. A dog named Adeena came from LLC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries from St. John Lutheran Church in Burlington, while Chloe came from Lord of Life Lutheran Church in LaFox. Dogs will be on hand again Monday when students return from spring break, along with additional resources for students including counselors, psychologists and social workers, Jacobson said.
“Seeing the dogs here will help them, and we just are really going to make sure we support his class first and foremost, his teacher. Everyone,” she said. “I think it’s hard to see it in the near future, but we’ll get through this.”
Teachers will meet to plan the day out before students arrive in class Monday and will meet again at the end of the day to compare notes on how to best move forward, Jacobson said.
Harden, Hill’s mother and a DeKalb resident, is a substitute teacher in District 428 schools, increasing the number of people in the district with a personal connection to the family. Jacobson noted that many people in the community already have expressed their willingness to help any way they can.
“We want to support his mom. His mom is also very loved here in this community,” Jacobson said. “It’s very obvious to me by the amount of people who have reached out that they’re a family who is loved.”
District 428 psychologist and assessment coordinator Lisa Becker’s leadership in designing crisis and mental health counseling plans helped prepare the district to support students and those in and around the district.
“It’s very hard to put good plans together if we’re in a high emotional state,” Becker said. “We’ve actually had myself and a few other district staff clinicians, counselors, psychologists, putting together a crisis plan of how to support kids and their mental health. We’ve been working on it all year. It’s not quite finished, but it’s in a good enough draft phase that we were able to pool most of those resources and have them AT the ready.”
Becker noted that while there is a plan in place, school officials will try to follow the lead of the students. Becker suggested there would be activities such as mindfulness exercises, social support sessions with times such as read aloud periods and recesses to help students feel a sense of routine.
“Kids crave routine,” Becker said. “It’s finding that balance of providing them the space to process, to talk about their feelings, but to also go back to a routine where they’re comfortable.”
District 428 Superintendent Jamie Craven said officials from other area school districts, including in Sycamore, Genoa-Kingston and Rochelle, also offered to help.
“We all rally around each other. It’s not like we’re standing here on an island trying to figure this out,” Craven said. “We have great people within our system, but we also have people from outside out system, fROm other districts contacting us asking, ‘What can we do to help?’ ”
Several fundraisers in support of the family of Ezra Hill Jr. are underway, including two from Ezra’s father.
A fundraiser benefiting “EJ’s foundation” on Facebook through GoFundMe had raised $6,209 of a $10,000 goal as of 8 p.m. Wednesday.
On Cash App, Ezra Jr.’s father, Ezra Hill Sr. (@EzraJeremiahHill) and Ezra Jr.’s mother Andrea Harden ($urdabest) were accepting donations.
Lora Gillum of DeKalb was raising money through the sale of homemade crafts through her Facebook page LSG Hodgepodgery, with 100 percent of the sales going to Ezra Hill Jr.’s family.
Correction: Lisa Becker's position was incorrectly stated as the District 428 district assessment coordinator. Dr. Amy Luckner holds that position. Becker is the student services coordinator.