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Sonoma teen who drowned on Central America trip mourned by friends, family

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The apparent drowning of a Sonoma Valley teen during a spring break trip to Central America highlights every parent’s worry of sending a child abroad in the name of doing good deeds for others.

Brandon Barmore was on the final day of his weeklong stint in Nicaragua on Sunday when something went terribly wrong in a lagoon where the 17-year-old had been swimming with friends.

His parents, Phil and Margee Barmore, told the Sonoma Index-Tribune they are relying on their faith to help them cope with the devastating loss.

“We have to look for the good in this even though we are going to miss him terribly,” Phil Barmore, a United Airlines pilot, said.

The couple’s middle child, whom they described as a whirlwind of activity and curiosity, was a widely known and popular figure at Sonoma Valley High School, where he captained the track and speech forensics teams, and participated in the Mock Trial team and Model UN Club.

In February, his peers selected him “Mr. Dragon” — so-named for the school’s mascot — after Barmore gave a rousing performance to show off his school spirit. He also was nominated as homecoming king.

“He was involved in so many things. He knew almost every student on campus,” Principal Kathleen Hawing said Thursday at the Broadway campus.

Off-campus, the aspiring biologist volunteered for the Sonoma Ecology Center and as a counselor at the Sebastiani Theatre’s summer camps. Friends said Barmore created a beehive and studied ways to protect pollinators for his senior project.

“You thought you knew something about a subject, and he would pull out all these facts,” Kimberly Uzzo, a 17-year-old junior, said.

Despite his brimming confidence at school, his parents said Brandon was a painfully shy child, so much so he was home-schooled through third grade. He later attended Kenwood Elementary and Adele Harrison Middle School.

“He really came into his own over the last few years,” said his mother, who credits, in part, a newfound love of performing for his blossoming personality. In high school, Barmore played Danny in “Grease” and took the stage in “Guys and Dolls.”

It seemed fitting Barmore chose community service in a foreign country over other options for his spring break last week. But his death, coming a few months shy of high school graduation, not only cut short his future plans of attending UC Davis, but also created a cratering sense of loss across the 1,300- student Sonoma Valley High School community.

“One of the worst feelings is that he was bright and smart, but he won’t make it to that day,” Mario Coronado, a 16-year-old junior, said of graduation.

Coronado huddled Thursday with other visibly upset students. Elsewhere on campus, kids stroked therapy dogs or spoke with counselors.

News of the teen’s death broke Wednesday when the school sent out a statement acknowledging the death of a student in a “swimming accident.”

The precise circumstances of Barmore’s death remain unclear.

The group, which included 23 students from Sonoma Valley High School, was relaxing on its final day in Nicaragua on Sunday following a productive week building a community structure in Mesas de Acicaya, a rural community of 850 people about 40 miles northeast of Managua, according to Annie Bacon, executive director of Seeds of Learning, the Sonoma nonprofit that organized the trip.

To that point, Barmore had impressed the Seeds of Learning staff with his humor and clever comebacks.

“He was a remarkably outgoing and brilliant kid,” said Seeds of Learning staff member Casey Callais.

Bacon said Sunday the teens were swimming in a volcanic lake within Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, near the youth hostel where the group was staying.

An adult chaperone also was in the water, but Bacon could not offer more details, saying she was still gathering information.

“They were playing in the lake together and he (Barmore) drowned. Even with people there,” Bacon said.

Bacon said a police report was taken but, as yet, no one has contacted anyone at Seeds of Learning to follow up. She said the nonprofit will be conducting an internal review of its own risk management policies in light of the teen’s death.

Bacon was a group leader and translator for Seeds of Learning in 2004 when a bus she and a group of students were riding in was stormed by bandits in Guatemala. She and the teens were forced to hand over valuables but were otherwise unharmed.

Until Sunday, the bus incident was the most significant mishap in the 25 years Seeds of Learning has been facilitating trips to Central America. Barmore’s death was the first trip fatality, Bacon said.

Bacon said parents can still have confidence that their kids will be safe on such trips.

“I hope it doesn’t prevent people from encouraging their kids to go off and do good things in the world,” she said. “I think it was a tragic accident and there’s nothing that can be done in that kind of unfortunate loss.”

Principal Hawing said she sent one of her daughters on a Seeds of Learning trip and she would not hesitate to do so again.

The Barmores have not assigned blame for their son’s death.

“We’re not angry at God or at anyone,” Margee Barmore, a kindergarten teacher at Kenwood School, told the Index- Tribune. “We’re just sad and confused.”

The couple also recounted how excited their son was to go on the adventure, saying he participated in every fundraising and planning event, including walking the catwalk for a winter Seeds of Learning fashion show at the Sonoma Community Center.

The couple has two other children, Ryan, 21, and Emily, 13.

Brandon will be buried at Sonoma Mountain Cemetery.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. April 15 at Sonoma Valley High, Hawing said.

“I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a parent,” the school principal said. “We send our children on weekend trips and to all kinds of places, and you never know when something like this is going to happen.”

Sonoma Index-Tribune reporter Lorna Sheridan and Press Democrat Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report.

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