Fort Worth

Two children, their mother’s tragic death and the true meaning of Christmas

Brayden Gardner, 12, whose mother was tragically killed last mother as he and his sister slept nearby, shows off presents he received during a special Winter Wonderland party at Daggett Middle School in Fort Worth.
Brayden Gardner, 12, whose mother was tragically killed last mother as he and his sister slept nearby, shows off presents he received during a special Winter Wonderland party at Daggett Middle School in Fort Worth. Special to the Star-Telegram

Early on Nov. 2, as two children awoke from a night’s sleep, they discovered their mother motionless in her bed.

She had been sexually assaulted and strangled, an apparent victim of domestic violence.

Elanceia “Lana” Gardner’s death shocked those who live in the Fairmount neighborhood. Her estranged husband, Shalen Gardner, was arrested and charged with murder. Gardner, who has a history of violence, remains in the Tarrant County Jail.

It’s been a rough go for the children, 12-year-old Brayden, 10-year-old Braysais, who now live with their maternal grandmother, Neia Roland. The children attend the same schools as they did before, De Zavala Elementary and Daggett Middle, where teachers and counselors have extended love and support.

“We are just a family here at Daggett,” said Cheryl Wesley, counselor at the middle school. “When things happen, we band together.”

On Wednesday, teachers and counselors from those schools and members of the Fairmount neighborhood association created a Winter Wonderland for Brayden, Braysais and their 3-year-old cousin, Lauren. It was a heartfelt gesture to bring some joy to the children during this holiday season.

“This is crazy. I did not expect this,” said Roland, her grandchildren smiling as they received the gifts.

Breinn Richter, a neighbor of the Gardners, said the community sprang into action after the tragedy because they wanted to take care of the children.

Photo for jump
Brayden and sister Braysais Gardner pose with grandmother Neia Roland, right, and aunt Typhani Davis, holding their cousin Lauren Hill during a special Winter Wonderland party at Daggett Middle School in Fort Worth on Wednesday. Ian McVea Special to the Star-Telegram

“We had to make sure the kids were OK,” Richter said.

Besides helping with the winter wonderland, the Fairmount Neighborhood Association collected more than $1,700 for the family with the help of One Safe Place, which is dedicated to preventing crime and violence in neighborhoods.

‘Surround them with love’

On the morning of the tragic crime, when police investigated the scene, school counselors were also there to support the children, who found their mom just after 8:30 a.m.

The youngsters talked about video games and the regular “things,” children bring up, Wesley said. Sometimes, they would talk about Christmas and their mother.

When Wesley returned to her campus, she and Principal Monica Garrett worried about the children and the loss of their mother so close to the holidays.

That’s when they decided to host a special party for the children.

Wesley obtained a wish list from the children that included basketballs, clothes and toys. She worked with school staff to get the presents and goodies for the party.

On Wednesday, an office at the school was converted into a winter scene with paper snow and snowflakes. A laptop computer was reinvented as a cozy fireplace and the wall nearby was embellished with red paper bricks to resemble a chimney.

But the Christmas tree was the centerpiece of the party. It had artfully decorated presents with bright red bows, gift bags and baskets with treats.

Seconds before the family arrived, eager party organizers found hiding places. Then they jumped out to reveal the surprise Christmas when the family walked into the office.

“We just wanted something big for them,” Wesley said.

Said Garrett: “We wanted to be able to surround them with love.”

‘They are awesome’

As Roland’s grandchildren tore open their presents, she said they have been overwhelmed by the love shown by the community.

“This school — Daggett, the community, De Zavala — have been so wonderful,” she said.

Roland said the celebration is important because she wants the build a sense of normalcy for the children. Even as they attend school and gear up for the holidays, there are struggles, she said, explaining that the children miss their mother and have trouble sleeping.

“It has really been hard for me and the children,” Roland said.

But that sadness, at least for a while, was lifted by the Christmas party.

“Momma!” Brayden called as he displayed basketball shoes. “These are nice!”

Asked what he thought of his counselors and teachers, he responded: “They are awesome.”

Teachers at Hidden Lakes Elementary School talk about what makes a great Christmas gift for them

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

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