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The Uvalde Girls

Small town pride, lifelong ties

Cathy
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Sally Cone, Kami Buri, Amanda Hughes Pickering

FRIENDS FOREVER Childhood friendships in Uvalde have only grown stronger for Sally Cone of Bunker Hill, Kami Buri of Wilchester, and Amanda Hughes Pickering of West University (pictured, from left), who love each other like family.

Small towns. Where conversations extend beyond platitudes, and everyone knows your name. Close connections are born here. Friends and neighbors are like family, the fabric of what you become. And when buoyant youth, brains tilled like fertile soil, spring from the hometown nest, precious memories are etched in their soul.

Uvalde, population just over 15,000. It’s such a place to this pack of gal pals, seven unflappable, fun, vibrant women who are as tethered to each other as ship to anchor. Whether life is handing out roses or crumpling like a worn cardboard box, they’re there for one another.

“I barely remember a time before them,” says Wilchester resident Kami Buri of her childhood friends from the Hill Country town, 80 miles west of San Antonio. Two of those friends live nearby: Sally Cone of Bunker Hill and Amanda Hughes Pickering of West University. The three, along with Kyley Houck of Huntsville, Tania Leskovar-Owens of Austin, Sami Harris of Waco, and Charla Jenkins, still in Uvalde, are 1997 graduates of Uvalde High School, land of the maroon and white fightin’ Coyotes. But their friendships started long before their teen years, with squirmy little wiggles and giggles at each other’s breakfast tables. Their families – indeed, the entire community – raised them, as was the case for all their Uvalde classmates.

Charla Jenkins, Kyley Houck, Kami Buri, Sami Harris, Amanda Hughes Pickering, Tania Leskovar-Owens, and Sally Cone

CONGREGATING IN CONCAN The group of seven women meet annually in Concan, the second weekend of June, husbands and children in tow, for much needed catch-up time and fun on the Frio River. Pictured, from left: Charla Jenkins, Kyley Houck, Kami Buri, Sami Harris, Amanda Hughes Pickering, Tania Leskovar-Owens, and Sally Cone.

The Uvalde Girls, as they call their text thread, are in it for the long haul. They’re the glue that binds life’s chapters. Weddings, birthdays, parenthood, deaths. They’ve grieved together at the loss of friends’ parents, and rejoiced at the birth of babies, 18 children in all among them, ages 3 to 14.

So, when a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers within the walls of Robb Elementary School in May, the school where their friendships took flight, it was an affront to their very foundation. They mourned for the town that raised them, their family. And they turned to each other, their rock.

Kami Buri, Sally Cone

GROWING UP TOGETHER The Uvalde Girls, as they refer to their text thread, have seen each other from childhood to parenthood. Here are some of the gals during their high school days. Uvalde High School seniors Kami Buri (left) and Sally Cone wear yellow cords representing their top 10 percent placement in the National Honor Society.

“I immediately checked in on Charla because she has four kids and one of them was elementary age, third grade. But her kids don’t go to Robb; her kids are in a dual language program in Uvalde, at a different campus,” explains Kami, whose mother was Robb Elementary’s school nurse when she and friends attended there. “We have family history there. And we have multiple friends whose sons and daughters were at Robb Elementary that day. Eva Mireles, the wife of one of our classmates, was one of the teachers killed. It was personal, knowing so many affected. We know several teachers who were there at the time. They were in our grade, our classmates. We graduated together. Even if you don’t know someone directly, being a small town like this, it affects everybody. There’s a ripple effect.”

“Total shock. I just remember thinking there’s no way that happened in our town. It’s just the sweetest little town,” joins in Amanda. “It was surreal.”

Sally, voice breaking, recalls that day, too. “A dear friend of our families, her son was shot in the arm. So many people, so many connections. I had to get home. I collected my family and within 48 hours we were there. We loved on each other at the town square. Our kids joined in with other kids, chalking the sidewalks with messages and hearts.”

Uvalde has its claims to fame. Historically, it’s known as the Honey Capital of the World for production of huajillo honey, a light-colored version of the liquid gold, discovered in the late 1800s. Oscar winning actor Matthew McConaughey, actress Dale Evans, and former Governor of Texas Dolph Briscoe were born there. Garner State Park, one of the most visited state parks in Texas, is named after John Nance Garner, Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called Uvalde home.

Adding the incomprehensible tragedy at Robb Elementary to the town’s “known for” category is a hard pill to swallow, say the women.

“It’s not easy when the hometown you love is suddenly known for this horrific act. It’s so much more than that. It’s a wonderful place. It’s where we fostered all these great relationships,” says Kami of her friends who regularly schedule girls trips. Next month they’ll travel to Savannah to decompress from their busy lives and take in the sights.

Uvalde is the model for how they want to live life.

Amanda Hughes Pickering and Kami Buri

Amanda Hughes Pickering (left) and Kami Buri are all smiles their senior year.

Uvalde memories are, indeed, sweet, their families as intertwined as dangling gold chains. They knew each other’s moms, dads, and grandparents from school, sports, church…. right down to the uncles, aunts, and cousins. Their parents were teachers, coaches, assistant principals, boy scout leaders, city officials. Everywhere you look, a parent, not necessarily your own, had eyes on you. They knew each other’s children like a compass knows north. They championed them as if they were their own.

“I tell people all the time about how tight Wilchester is. I feel like I live in this little pocket that mimics what we had in Uvalde.  I could, on any given day, call one of 20 moms to go get my kids at school,” Kami explains. “My kids are growing up knowing a lot of their friends’ aunts, uncles and cousins, grandparents, just like I did growing up.”

“Here we are in the fourth largest city in the country and our little hometown carries us. It’s just sweet,” says Sally. “My kids have the same small town feel here in Bunker Hill. They ride their bikes to school. How many kids do that, in the middle of Houston? It’s what we want for them, the same close connections and morals and standards that Uvalde taught us. I’m growing up with those Uvalde friends still. Our kids are, too. We might live 250 miles from there, but that community is in our hearts, and we’ve kept up those connections.”

Kami and Sally’s boys compete against each other in sports. Another generation developing ties. Amanda’s daughter, 3, is the youngest of the group’s children. “She is going to be a big city girl because we live in a big city, but I, too, want those kind of Uvalde values for her. The older I get, the more I feel how important that is,” Amanda agrees.

“You couldn’t get in too much trouble because there was accountability,” adds Amanda, with a laugh. She recalls one time her dad, city attorney for 25 years, and legal counsel at the bank, held her accountable.

“He called me when I was in high school and said ‘Can you stop writing hot checks? It’s embarrassing. Every time they read off the hot check list in the board meeting, your name is on there.’ I was such a kid. I wasn’t paying attention to the fact my account got overdrawn.”

Tania Leskovar-Owens, Kyley Houck, Amanda Hughes Pickering, Kami Buri

Four of the seven friends: Tania Leskovar-Owens, Kyley Houck, Amanda, and Kami. 

Amanda’s mom taught in the local schools, as a substitute.

Sally’s dad was president of the Land Bank Association, now known as Capital Farm Credit. He loaned money to ranchers and farmers in the rural community, neighbors, and friends. He led a Boy Scout troop. Her mom was a teacher and taught Sunday school. The couple helped develop youth groups.

“Being the nurse’s kid, I didn’t get away with any stuff. You didn’t catch me faking a stomachache to get out of class,” says Kami, who followed in her mom’s footsteps, becoming a nurse. Her dad worked in various teacher, coach, and athletic coordinator roles in the school district for 37 years, including football coach and assistant principal at Uvalde High School.

“I remember classmates saying to me, ‘Your dad is so strict!’ I remember telling them ‘Just do what you need to do, and you won’t get in trouble!’” exclaims Kami. Her parents divorced. Her stepmother was the cross-country and track coach. “And my uncle was the tennis coach. So, I had a lot of family involved there. I had to walk the straight and narrow!”

When Amanda’s dad died in 2005 at age 59, it hit hard. Of the seven in the girlfriend group, Kyley and Charla have lost their dads, too.

“Those deaths are always hard because those men raised us,” explains Kami. “The dads drove us 30 minutes to Garner State Park to go dancing. All the Houston cute boys would go, and we weren’t yet driving age. They’d bring their fold-out chairs and sit there the entire time, quietly, till it was time to take us home.

Amanda Hughes Pickering, Sally Cone, and Kami Buri

Childhood friendships in Uvalde have only grown stronger for (from left) Amanda Hughes Pickering, Sally Cone, and Kami Buri.

“I adored Amanda’s dad,” Kami continues. “I would always sit in the kitchen and chit chat with him while waiting on Amanda. Amanda was always late.”

“Guilty,” Amanda quips, adding, “It was like each other’s parents were everyone else’s parents, too. They all wanted us to succeed.”

“I think the spirit of Uvalde touches so many people, whether it’s people who come here from other places to hunt or to go to Garner State Park to camp. It’s such a beautiful area,” says Sally of the region’s majestic Cypress trees, rivers, and cliffs.

The seven couples, children in tow, take advantage of that beauty the second weekend of each June, renting a large house in nearby Concan in central Uvalde County, along the spring-fed, crystal-clear Frio River. The dads – bonded, with their own text thread – float the waters and golf with the older children.

Kami, Sally, Amanda, and their gal pals talk and talk, side conversation upon side conversation, afternoons morphing into evenings. Food, drinks, laughter. Lots of laughter. And they tuck their feet under each other like those little girls that shared dreams and secrets under a wide-open Uvalde sky.

Support for Uvalde

People from all points of the globe responded to the Uvalde tragedy with donations and support for the victims’ families, and the town itself, reeling from the deadliest school shooting in the United States in a decade.

“People all over the world care,” says Sally, who, along with her girlfriends’ respective families did what they could “from our little corner of the world. It’s been an amazing outpouring of help all around the world.”

Kami reached out to Wilchester Elementary. The principal included a link in her weekly email where parents and staff could donate directly to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s (UCISD) Amazon teacher wish list or make monetary donations directly to its PTO. She and husband, John, made a personal donation, matched by his employer, and her in-laws donated, too, through their involvement with their bingo committee.

The couple met with the UCISD PTO in September to deliver their check. “Hearing all the things the PTO has done is remarkable, trying to fill gaps for families and regain a sense of normalcy,” Kami explains.

“I’ve gotten so many emails from friends who live all over. People doing amazing things in response. And they are still doing it,” says Amanda, who assists with philanthropy for her employer, The Friedkin Group. They joined with Toyota Motor North America, providing substantial funding to several nonprofit organizations in Uvalde that are helping those impacted by the shooting.

Sally and husband, Matthew, donated to the Robb Memorial Fund through the First State Bank of Uvalde, and directly to a family who was impacted. “We support and encourage other Uvalde friends who have launched their own fundraising initiatives that are making great impacts.”

One of the women’s Uvalde classmates and friends, Roland Ramirez – head athletic trainer and director of sports medicine for the Houston Texans – was part of a contingent that surprised Uvalde High School football players at a dinner before the Coyotes’ season opener in September. The Texans organized transportation and a suite for the Uvalde team to attend Houston’s opener against the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans wore “Uvalde Strong” decals on their helmets and gifted the Coyotes new uniforms provided by Nike.

“People just do what they can, and that makes a difference,” Kami says.

Robb Memorial Fund donations are accepted through Zelle at: [email protected] or via check to 200 E. Nopal St., Uvalde, TX 78801.

Donations to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District PTO can be made via PayPal or checks can be sent to Uvalde CISD PTO, PO Box 5401, Uvalde, TX 78802.

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