Robert Figueroa bowed his head as he stood over two burial plots in the Adams Rogers Cemetery.
To the right, the final resting place of his best friend. To the left, the grave of his twin brother.
Both 18-year-olds were gunned down July 3 in a drive-by shooting on 59th Avenue Drive East in Bradenton. No arrests have been made.
Six months earlier, someone shot Figueroa twice in the face with an AR-15, on that same street.
Although he survived, physical and emotional scars remain. But he resolved to move on with his life.
So Figueroa, now 19, signed up this fall for the Boat Building and Yacht Repair Program at Manatee Technical Institute.
Just as his class began its first assignment — designing their own skimboards — instructor Dave Stinnette learned of his student’s losses and asked how he could help.
Figueroa confided in his teacher that his twin and best friend did not have headstones to mark their grave sites. Instead of making a skimboard, he asked if he could make a headstone.
“My dad gave me the idea. I asked my teacher; I didn’t think it was allowed,” Figueroa said, then smiled. “He let me.”
So Figueroa decided to still make a skimboard and somehow create a headstone using it.
He got right to work, planning each detail, including what he would write on it.
Stinnette provided his student with scraps of marine plywood the class often uses to build boats.
“We wanted something to last out in the weather,” Stinnette said.
Classmate Pedro Garcia, 24, helped him cut out the skimboard.
For two weeks Figueroa drew, sanded and re-sanded during the class he attends five days a week.
Then Figueroa, his family and Stinnette dedicated the headstone at the cemetery off 43rd Street Northwest.
Standing 6 feet tall, the skimboard is attached to a cross. Amid flames drawn on the board, it reads: “I lost my brother n best friend all in one day. But the memories you will never take. You will always be in our hearts and minds. Rest in Peace.”
“It was more than a headstone,” MTI director Mary Cantrell said. “It was a brother’s tribute to his twin. It also helped created a new path for him.”
This past week, Figueroa visited the site with his parents, Miriam and Nery Garcia.
“I thank God for his teacher helping him and for the school,” Miriam Garcia said, then began to cry. “It’s a good opportunity to keep him off the streets.”
Figueroa was in Honduras visiting relatives when he learned of his twin brother’s death.
Police say Irwin Figueroa and Rubin Garduno were likely shot from behind by someone in a blue Mercury Grand Marquis.
“They’d been in a fight earlier in the night,” he said. “They came back for them, I think.”
Fighting is nothing new to Figueroa. His mother said he and his brother were boxers. He’s been in more street fights than he can remember, Figueroa said, because life on some Bradenton streets is tough. Yet he attended school and graduated from Bayshore High School.
“I’m trying to change things now. If there is any way to end the violence, I wish I could do that,” he said as he stood near his twin’s grave.
And he’s thankful to Stinnette for showing him a glimpse of kindness.
“I thought it was noble of him. It came out of nowhere, blew my mind. For somebody to let you do that really gets to you, the young man said.
“After so many bad things have happened, it makes you think ... makes me want to do something nice for others now.”
And he is, his instructor said.
“He’s never missed a day,” Stinnette said.
A few weeks ago, Figueroa was named Student of the Year.
MTI liaison Bettie Stephenson said she nominated him because he has overcome “some extremely traumatic events in his life this past six months and he continues coming to class, doing well, and determined to complete the program and work in his field.”
‘He is a great guy with a big smile and a great future ahead of him,” Stephenson said.
Sometimes blessings come in disguise, Cantrell said.
Because of budget cuts at the school on 34th Street West this year, Stinnette had to combine another class, Boat and Yacht Repair, with the Boat Building class he’s taught for years.
“So far so good,” Stinnette said. “I wanted to reach out to Robert. I try to with all my students.”