Three years after baby’s death at day care, Eudora family says ‘he’s always with us’

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

Oliver "Ollie" Lynn Ortiz, pictured at 3 months old

Three years after their infant son’s death at the hands of the woman entrusted with his care, Rob and Kaylen Ortiz have surrounded themselves with people who help them stay “Ollie strong.”

The boy is everywhere, too, his parents said.

Oliver “Ollie” Lynn Ortiz was 9 months old on Sept. 29, 2016, when he became unresponsive at day care and could never be revived. A day care employee was convicted in connection with his death.

Rob, 38, and Kaylen, 33, spoke with the Journal-World Tuesday evening in their Eudora living room. Standing by were the other members of the Ortiz household: son Christopher, who turned 10 on Wednesday; 5-month-old Arya; and Oreo, a 1-year-old Shih Tzu, Yorkie and poodle mix.

Seemingly everywhere inside the warm home were memories, old and new: photos of Ollie were showcased in frames as well as printed on throw pillows, and little foxes appeared all over the place. Recent family photos hung on the walls as well, including one of Christopher holding Arya and sitting beside a special teddy bear symbolizing his brother.

“We had to make new memories in here,” Kaylen said.

Many of the keepsakes are gifts from friends and family members. They, along with others in the communities of Eudora, Kaylen’s hometown of Pratt and Rob’s hometown of Chanute, have helped the family to stay “Ollie strong,” as they’ve dubbed it, through their grief and a painful yearslong court case.

Rob and Kaylen have found additional support among other families that have experienced similar tragedies. They have become activists for safe, affordable child care, and they have taken some comfort in helping others in Ollie’s name.

‘He’s always with us’

Ollie was born Dec. 28, 2015. He was a “rainbow baby” because he followed a molar pregnancy, his parents have said.

Asked to share some happy memories, Kaylen smiled and said “That’s easy.”

“He had the most precious blue eyes, so sparkling blue,” she said. “He was mischievous; I will give him that. Once he got mobile, he was into everything.”

That’s where the symbolic foxes came from — they kind of stuck from one of Ollie’s outfits, but also because the boy was “sly like a fox,” his mother said.

Also, she wrote in a follow-up email to the Journal-World, “he had the best fishy kiss face and loved doing it, he was so silly!”

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

A 6-month-old Oliver “Ollie” Lynn Ortiz makes a “fishy face.” “(H)e had the best fishy kiss face and loved doing it, he was so silly!” his mother Kaylen Ortiz wrote.

“He was just so full of character and his own personality,” she said Tuesday.

The child is still very much present in the family’s everyday life, in one way or another.

He sends signs, Kaylen said: rainbows and foxes are two of the things that let the family know Ollie is around. For instance, Kaylen said the family attended a wedding recently, and a red fox ran across the road — “in the middle of downtown Kansas City,” she said, emphasizing the peculiarity.

Also, “She talks to him all the time,” Kaylen said, referring to Arya — sometimes she giggles or talks in her sleep.

And she will know all about the brother she never got to meet.

“She’ll always know who he was because we will talk about him all the time, and we do go to the cemetery almost daily,” Kaylen said.

Arya Oliver Ortiz “doesn’t know a stranger,” her parents said, and she wakes up happy. On Tuesday evening, she often babbled pleasantly and only fussed for a moment or two before nodding off for a nap in her father’s arms.

Her resemblance to her namesake is uncanny.

“We were kind of nervous having another baby, and I went through a lot of emotions,” Kaylen said, noting that she was also nervous about how the baby would look.

“When she was born, she was her own self. But as she’s approaching the ages that, you know, we really think of Ollie and how active he was, she looks so much like him,” Kaylen said, then cooed across the living room to a smiling Arya, “Yeah, you look just like Bubba.”

It had taken months before Kaylen could return to the home where the family lived prior to Oliver’s death, and even then, she couldn’t stay long. She said there were a lot of things that you don’t think are going to be hard.

“Going home was one thing I couldn’t do, just because I had left that morning with two children and I was not returning with two children,” Kaylen said.

The family stayed with Kaylen’s aunt from that September until January 2017. They moved into a new home nearby that July, because even with things packed up and moved out, Kaylen said she could still see an outline where Ollie’s crib had been.

“Everything we moved had one of his binkies in it, too,” Rob said with a light chuckle. “They’d just fall out while we were moving it.”

“When we moved from that house to this house, a binkie fell out of the couch, and it was like, ‘There you are, buddy,'” Kaylen added. “So, another one of the signs. He’s always with us.”

‘We find peace out there’

Of the family’s frequent trips to the cemetery, Kaylen said “We find peace out there.”

Ollie’s grave is marked with a tall, black stone that bears images of his face and of a rainbow. It’s inscribed “Fly High Sweet Boy”, and it’s surrounded by decorations and toys that Kaylen said the family refreshes regularly.

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

The Ortiz family — father Rob, mother Kaylen, brother Christopher, 9, and baby Arya — are pictured at Ollie’s gravestone in Eudora on Nov. 18, 2019, after the sentencing of the day care provider convicted in 9-month-old Ollie’s death. Below the rainbow, the stone reads “Fly High Sweet Boy”.

Ollie really liked Mickey Mouse, and many toys reflect that. But some other types of toys, such as “Paw Patrol,” have “ventured out there” as well, Kaylen said.

“We try to imagine what he would like and who he would be,” she said.

On the anniversary of his death, friends and family members asked what Rob and Kaylen needed from them. They said they just needed to be with Ollie, so their friends set up a tent at the cemetery. They had a picnic and spent the whole afternoon there.

“We just always wanted to be near him, and we sit for hours out there,” Kaylen said.

Kaylen said she didn’t go along to pick the plot — “who wants to go pick their child’s plot?”

“But I asked for it to be away from everybody,” she said. “I wanted to have a place where I could go and not be so close to anybody.”

Naturally, she was upset at first when she visited after work one day and someone had been buried right next to Ollie. But she has since met “Papa Clark’s” family, and now it makes sense.

“They buried him next to Ollie intentionally because he loved kids and they felt like Ollie needed someone to protect him,” Kaylen said. “So now that you hear the rest of the story, it’s like, ‘OK, I forgive you.’

“And I’m OK with that. Ollie probably does need a little bit of protection sometimes.”

‘A little bit better now’

Christopher was old enough to have personally known and bonded with his baby brother. He was 6 years old when, as his mother said at a recent court hearing, “he saw his baby brother lying lifeless on the ground of the day care while many tried to save him.”

At first, Christopher said he thought they were just changing Ollie’s diaper on the floor, which was nothing out of the ordinary.

“And then he went over there, marched over there and he was like panicking,” Christopher said, referring to his father, “and I was like, ‘What’s happening?'”

Christopher went to counseling for a while right after Ollie died; Rob was hit hardest about six months afterward. During court, Kaylen said they’ve all been diagnosed with various mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and major depressive disorder.

Helping to fill at least a bit of the void for Christopher is an Ollie plushie, custom-made that first Christmas by “Santa” via a company called Budsies.

Wrapped inside a light blue star-patterned blanket that belonged to Ollie, the blond-haired, blue-eyed doll wears gray pants with a fox pattern print and a red shirt emblazoned with a bright orange fox in the shape of a necktie. The outfit replicates one that Ollie wore on a day shortly before his death — the one that’s pictured in a photo provided to media shortly afterward.

photo by: Contributed photo

Oliver Ortiz

The family also has a “Molly Bear” to represent Ollie, made by a nonprofit that produces special bears for families that have lost children. It’s a fluffy teddy bear with a blue ribbon around its neck for Ollie’s blue eyes, a rainbow on its belly and a fox on its left foot.

The bear weighs 15 pounds.

“If we ever want to feel and cuddle him, that bear is weighted to what his last weight was,” Kaylen said.

“… We’re all a little bit better now,” she said.

“I’m the bestest,” Christopher chimed in. His mother agreed with a laugh.

As difficult as it can be, the parents are open and honest with their oldest.

“We don’t hide it,” Kaylen said. “I mean, he doesn’t know details, but I feel like the only way he can grieve properly is if he knows what happened.”

‘We’ll never really know’

“… Even to this day, though, we still don’t know what happened to (Ollie),” Kaylen said.

“We’ll never really know,” Rob said, “because the only two people who know are Ollie and Carrody.”

Carrody Buchhorn, now 45, was an employee at Sunshine Kids Group Daycare Home, which was at 1307 Chestnut Lane in Eudora and closed shortly after Ollie’s death. A jury found Buchhorn guilty of second-degree murder for killing Ollie “unintentionally but recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.” On Nov. 18, Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny gave her the maximum possible sentence of 123 months in prison.

The coroner had a theory, and he concluded that Ollie’s death was a homicide from blunt force trauma. Still, the Ortizes are left with questions.

Christopher had attended the same day care for years — from around ages 2-4, then during the summers after he started kindergarten, including one summer with Ollie.

The parents said they never had any reason to worry.

“We never saw it coming,” Rob said. “No signs or anything that something was wrong.”

“If we would have noticed something, we would have pulled them out immediately,” Kaylen said.

In the small town of Eudora, they did have a connection to the day care’s owner: Kaylen’s cousin went to school with the owner’s daughter. They did trust the day care, Kaylen said, “and I think that’s the hardest thing out of all of this.”

“It’s not easy to pick a day care. It’s not easy to trust somebody with your kids. But it was somebody that we did trust,” she said. “… We knew of them. We knew that they were good in the community. We knew they were good day care providers.”

Kaylen said Buchhorn had been hired during a time when Christopher was not in attendance, before Ollie was born.

“(Christopher) said sometimes they would just tell Ollie to shut up if he was crying, but he said no one was ever mean to him,” Kaylen said, “because we’ve asked that several times, too.”

They haven’t spoken to the day care owner or Buchhorn since.

“We had one chance, and that was right after it happened and we didn’t know what was going on,” Rob said.

He said they had called the coroner, who told them Ollie’s death was not of natural causes; the sheriff confirmed it shortly after Ollie’s funeral, they said.

Christopher asked many questions Tuesday evening.

“Why did it have to just be Ollie?” Christopher asked his mother.

“… You have questions just like we do, bud. We don’t know,” she told him.

Asked whether they’d felt any more closure in just more than a week since Buchhorn was sentenced, Kaylen quickly shook her head and said “Nope.”

“I feel like that part’s done, but I guess we’ll never really be done with it,” Rob said.

“Like Judge Pokorny said that day, losing him is still as raw as it was the day we lost him, and sentencing doesn’t make it any easier,” Kaylen agreed.

“… Whether it’s 10 years or 100, it doesn’t bring him back,” Rob said.

‘There’s still anxiety’

While Kaylen works as a nurse at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and Rob works at Pinnacle Technology, Arya spends her days in the care of Kaylen’s uncle, who has now retired.

“There’s still anxiety, but it is more reassuring,” Kaylen said.

But not all families have that kind of option for child care.

That’s one of the reasons Rob and Kaylen have become activists in the aftermath of Ollie’s death. They’re pushing for safe, affordable child care for all families.

“I still want to make day care safe for everybody else,” Kaylen said. “And tomorrow’s not guaranteed for everybody. So if something happened to my uncle, we would have to explore other options.”

Kaylen said she had been following the story of another family that had lost a baby at a day care in Olathe — a little girl who was hit by a car during dropoffs and pickups. Kaylen never reached out, though, until one day when she got the nerve because she was very upset.

A member of that family encouraged her to get in touch with Kim Engelman, chief of family and community engagement for Child Care Aware of America. Engelman told the Ortizes about the nonprofit CCAoA’s symposiums in Washington, D.C., and Rob and Kaylen decided to attend.

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

Rob and Kaylen Ortiz are pictured at the “Day on the Hill,” working as activists with Child Care Aware of America and Child Care Works in April 2019 in Washington, D.C.

Engelman’s daughter, Lexie, died in day care in 2004. Engelman’s activism in Kansas led to Lexie’s Law, enacted in 2010. It mandates that child care providers be licensed and inspected by the state and stipulates that providers must be trained in CPR and pediatric first aid, among other requirements.

Kaylen said that’s a start, and Kansas is better off than a lot of states because of that law. But she and Rob still want to see more done to protect kids.

The couple have now gone to Washington and spoken with congressional staffers three Aprils in a row. They’ve also spoken with some legislators at area events.

They said they’ve heard many tragic stories, and their first year in attendance was especially hard.

“Everybody there is there mostly because something bad happened to them,” Rob said.

Kaylen said advocates recommend dropping in on your child care providers unannounced, but she said that’s not possible for a lot of people. She works a full-time job in Lawrence, for instance, so she can’t just leave and drive all the way back to Eudora.

Mandatory video surveillance in day cares is one thing the couple has pushed for. Though Kaylen said she wouldn’t necessarily want to sit around all day watching a livestream of her kid’s day care, it could allow parents to check in, and it would provide much clearer answers when any incidents do occur.

She said she’s heard often that certain things aren’t feasible because of cost.

“If I can have my dog kenneled for the weekend and watch him on video surveillance the whole time I’m out of town, why can’t I do that with my child while I’m at work?” Kaylen said.

They also ask for more extensive training, including CPR training. Kaylen said she still wonders if CPR was performed correctly for Ollie.

“I have questions day in and day out of that whole day and how everything went and what I’ve heard in court and processing things,” she said.

The couple also want to see paid leave for new parents, stricter safety guidelines for child care facilities, more thorough background checks and higher education requirements for employees.

“We don’t have a choice for the situation we were thrust into,” Kaylen said. “But if I can prevent somebody else from having to be in it or make their lives a little easier, then that’s what we want to do.”

Ollie’s Toy Box

“Ollie didn’t get his first Christmas, or his first birthday,” Kaylen said, “but we had a little bit of money put back for him.”

As they lamented never getting to celebrate those first special days with Ollie, or even his first steps, Kaylen’s uncle was also upset that he never got to carry on a family tradition that began with Kaylen’s grandfather by building Ollie a toy box.

They also realized they needed to channel their grief in a different way.

Those ideas came together into what the couple plan to establish as a registered nonprofit, Ollie’s Toy Box. Now, anytime a family member or friend would have spent money on a gift or card for Ollie, Rob and Kaylen ask that instead they put the same amount toward helping other people. The couple have met with an accountant and are learning about the process to make it official.

Kaylen said she mostly wants to help families with babies, because Ollie was a baby. But as long as the need is there, they want to help. They provide essentials — diapers, formula and other such items — and Christopher helps to pick out toys for Christmas presents.

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

This contributed photo shows three plastic totes stuffed with items from Ollie’s Toy Box, which Rob and Kaylen Ortiz intend to establish as a nonprofit.

They don’t insist on meeting the beneficiaries, Kaylen said, but they do want them to know Ollie. They include his photo and a note that reads “With love from Ollie’s Toy Box” on each of the boxes, which are plastic totes stuffed full of items.

And they’re happy to provide the kids’ gifts to the parents if they want to wrap them and give them to the kids from themselves or Santa, Kaylen said.

“I feel like every parent should be their kid’s hero,” she said.

Family members have helped make their efforts successful. Rob’s brother, Ryan Ortiz, has run marathons and even a 50-mile race to raise funds for Ollie’s Toy Box. When he ran the Kansas City Marathon, he raised about $12,900; then, Kaylen said, people online wanted to donate $100 to round up the number, but the donations ended up far exceeding $13,000.

That year, Kaylen said, they found three families in need: one in Eudora, one in Pratt and one in Chanute. Their goal again this Christmas is to find a family in each town, because she said those three communities have helped them raise the most money and she wants to give back to them.

They’ve also been able to help at other times of the year when people have experienced tragedies or struggled in one way or another — a family that lost everything to a fire, a family that was relying on the Lawrence Community Shelter and a woman who had recently managed to move into a home but lacked the essentials she needed to raise her 2-year-old.

“In the last 33 months since starting Ollie’s Toy Box we have been able to help 15 different families from different backgrounds, communities and areas of need and at spontaneous times for these individuals when they might find themselves struggling and needing assistance,” according to written information Kaylen provided about their efforts. “This is Ollie, helping us, bringing us those in need to help and shower with his love.”

It’s not just monetary support that the Ortizes have received from the people of Eudora. The porch light outside the family’s home is bright blue, and it will be until the bulb burns out, Kaylen said. It comes from an effort during the long court case to “turn Eudora blue for Ollie.”

“We have good support here,” Kaylen said. “That’s why we love this community and another reason why we do what we do.”

Kaylen said the Ortizes aren’t asking for donations, but they understand that people might want to contribute. Checks made out to “Ollie’s Toy Box” can be mailed to Ollie’s Toy Box, P.O. Box 115, Eudora, KS 66025.

The Ortizes said giving back in this way does make them feel better.

“Ollie was our little sunshine and ray of hope after a hard time, and I hope that he can continue to be that for others, too,” Kaylen said. “They might be in a dark place, but maybe his toy box can help them have a little bit of joy.”

photo by: Kaylen Ortiz/Contributed Photo

This contributed photo shows items from Ollie’s Toy Box, which Rob and Kaylen Ortiz intend to establish as a nonprofit. In the top right photo, Christopher Ortiz, Ollie’s big brother, stands in front of the totes.

Contact Mackenzie Clark

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