Stephanie Paniagua aspired to become a cardiologist and surgeon. She longed to help people through all aspects of life; however, those dreams and aspirations came to a tragic halt on Sunday, June 7.
Just weeks after her 19th birthday, Stephanie’s body was discovered in her home by responding Wharton Police Department detectives following a deadly shooting incident.
Though her time was tragically cut short, she lived a life full of love, advocacy and service.
Her godparents, Brenda and Jose Palmerin, baptized Stephanie at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Wharton when she was just days old.
‘The school system is the blood, sweat, and tears of years of efforts to better the lives of many students, to place each and every one of them on the trail of success.’
“Ever since she was little, she was standoffish, but always spoke up when anyone was being mistreated or bullied,” Brenda Palmerin told The County Gin. “Stephanie couldn’t stand by and watch someone get hurt. She didn’t want anyone to ever hurt.
“Stephanie was very vocal and caring. She would express her feelings and stance on equality with everyone she met. She just cared about everyone being treated fairly.”
Stephanie served as a tutor on the website Knowledge Rountable.
In her own words, she shared her feelings about the possibilities that come with education and sought to lend a hand to those struggling both inside and outside the classroom.
“The school system is the blood, sweat, and tears of years of efforts to better the lives of many students, to place each and every one of them on the trail of success,” Stephanie said. “I am Hispanic and with my bilingual asset, I yearn to help students who are behind in school for their language barrier. I, too, was one of those kids who had no intention (of) learning English, but I do not regret the suffering and mockery I lived through because now I am the voice of my race, of which I am proud.
“My main goal is to help the kids: those kids who fall behind and struggle in the classroom; those kids who are most likely to become high school drop-outs; these are the kids I want to assist because I truly believe that every single individual is a genius in the making.”
Stephanie was also ambitious in her own education. She graduated in the top 15% from Wharton High School in 2019, where she gained her Certified Nursing Assistance Certification through the school’s Allied Health Program and earned 60 college credits through the school’s R.O.A.R. Academy.
“Stephanie was a confident, smart and devoted student,” childhood friend Ybette Vazquez said. “She also said, ‘I will be a cardiologist one day,’ and I believed her. She excelled academically.”
Vazquez met Stephanie in kindergarten at Minnie Mae Hopper, and said from day one, she and Stephanie were destined to be best friends.
‘The happiest I have ever seen her was when she was getting ready to go to a concert.’
“We had the same personality,” she said. “We were both quiet and shy, but only to other people. We were able to show our crazy sides when it was just us.”
The friendship between Stephanie and Vazquez blossomed during their time at Wharton Junior High School.
“We bonded the most during junior high,” Vazquez said. “Every morning we would wait for each other to arrive at school and meet in the cafeteria. That’s when she stopped being my friend and became my sister.
“One thing Stephanie was really into, was music. We would listen to, singalong with and talk about all of our favorite songs and bands. They were mostly K-pop and Hispanic bands. She was really, really into concerts.”
Stephanie even took Vazquez to her first concert the summer before the pair began their senior year at WHS.
“I remember her being so happy to see this band, Stray Kids, because she was going to get to see them and we were so close,” Vazquez said. “I remember her beaming. The happiest I have ever seen her was when she was getting ready to go to a concert.”
Outside of music, the pair enjoyed playing tennis together and often found it relieved stress.
“There were times that we just played all day and night long. We even played doubles for WHS,” she said. “We were so good, too. Stephanie would help me so much during those matches. She would help calm down my nerves before matches and help when I would get frustrated.
“But that was Stephanie. She would always have my back and I had hers. We took care of each other.”
There was one subject Vazquez didn’t like to discuss with Stephanie — politics.
“She was passionate about politics and civil matters. Those were some of her favorite things to talk about apart from music,” Vazquez said. “She was an activist for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and immigration rights. I mean, even if you didn’t agree with her, she would still enjoy talking politics.
“I used to joke with her after our government class that she would be president one day, which would start an entire conversation about things she would and wouldn’t do if she were president. I admired how brave she was when talking about things like BLM. She held her ground on those matters and was very vocal about equality.”
Throughout their high school years, Stephanie would often be recognized for her dedication to school.
“Her teachers loved her,” Vazquez said. “All the time they would stop her and tell her how great she was doing. I remember Mrs. (Janet) Johnson was always saying really nice things to Stephanie every time we walked by her.”
After graduating high school, Stephanie began her pre-medical studies at Sam Houston State University (SHSU).
“We had to say goodbye for a while,” Vazquez said. “Stephanie went to SHSU and I stayed to finish the nursing program here at WCJC. We would still talk, though. She would complain about her 30-minute walk to her classes from her dorm room, but then tell me about all her classes. She really loved her political science class.”
‘I don’t have her anymore. She’s gone. But I will always remember all the crazy, fun and important times we had. Even though she is gone, Stephanie won’t be forgotten.’
The last outing Stephanie and Vazquez shared before COVID-19 was at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) in March.
“She invited me, like always,” Vazquez said. “She helped me style my outfit and hair. We went to the HLSR; we rode rides, walked around the carnival and went to see a concert.
“Stephanie had tickets to see this band, NCT 127. She was going to get to meet them because her tickets put her so close to the stage. She talked about it like it was the only thing happening in the world. I was so happy for her, too. It was really cool to see her that happy.”
Vazquez said the last conversation she had with Stephanie was about the BLM movement two weeks before her death.
“We were texting back and forth about it,” she said. “We wanted to participate and she really wanted to call attention to the movement.”
Vazquez continues to think about Stephanie and the conversations lost.
“I never got to have that last conversation with her, you know?” Vazquez said. “To talk to her about her and I. She was a sister to me. I just miss her and want her to know that she was such a good person and friend to me.
“I don’t have her anymore. She’s gone. But I will always remember all the crazy, fun and important times we had. Even though she is gone, Stephanie won’t be forgotten.”
Stephanie’s advocacy and ambitions still reignites with the community, even after her tragic death.
The WHS Class of 2019 created a GoFundMe account for Stephanie’s family. Contributions were presented to the family for assistance with funeral costs.
“I think it is amazing that the class of 2019 started this for her family,” Vasquez said. “They are being really supportive to me and to Stephanie’s family. They have all been so generous and kind.”
“People have been very supportive emotionally and wished to contribute financially,” Palmerin said. “I can still hear her singing. She used to sing this song so loudly. It went, ‘I need for you to give me a kiss,’ I can still hear her singing that.”
Stephanie’s wake service was under the direction of the Wharton Funeral Home.
Publisher’s Note: I had the pleasure of meeting Stephanie a few times with The Wharton Lions Club her senior year. We awarded her a $1,500 scholarship because her application and accomplishments were outstanding. I was honestly amazed by her dedication and confidence in fulfilling her dream to become a cardiology surgeon. I remember stating, “You have to be the most dedicated person I have ever met.” Her response was very sweet and honest. “I probably am,” she said. I mourn along with her family, friends and community for the beautiful life, lost too soon. The County Gin would like to pass along our deepest condolences during this very sad time.