Just inside the front door of Sylvia’s Deli, a blue-and-white Rockhurst University pennant hangs on a wall over a red-jeweled cross and a framed photograph of a smiling Olivia Raya.
They represent the cause, the prayers and the memories that have helped a mother cope since the 2002 murder of her oldest daughter.
This fall will be the eighth and final fiesta that Sylvia Raya, the owner of the deli at 1746 Washington St., throws in her daughter’s name. It may also be the last time for hundreds of neighbors, friends and family of Olivia Raya to party together in memory of the 26-year-old Rockhurst University graduate — and to raise scholarship money that has helped seven other Latina women pursue an education at Rockhurst.
“Doing it consoled me,” said Raya, a navy blue apron covering her 5-foot frame from neck to knees. “To know that I was doing some good to help someone to finance their education. ... Education was so important to my daughter. What else could I possibly do?”
Since 2006, Raya and five of her friends, with help from many people in Kansas City’s Hispanic community, have planned the Olivia Raya Foundation party — burritos, drinks, raffles and music, always at Pierson Park in Wyandotte County. Always $10 for a ticket.
Raya knows that when the last ticket is sold for the Nov. 8 event, she and her friends will have raised enough to put them well over the top on the $100,000 needed to endow the Olivia Raya Memorial Scholarship so that it can be given in perpetuity.
Given to students such as Megan Sneed, who was a 28-year-old Rockhurst senior when she was selected as the 2012 scholarship recipient. After counting up all the loans, grants, scholarships and savings she had for that year, Sneed found she would still be short about $2,500 a semester. The Raya scholarship helped make the difference.
“I felt blessed that I was given the opportunity. It really meant a lot to me,” said Sneed, who after graduation became a financial adviser with Waddell & Reed.
She learned about Olivia Raya and her murder when she applied for the scholarship. After she won it, she met Olivia’s father, Louis, and her mother. Sylvia Raya’s generosity to Rockhurst and familiarity in the community earned her an invitation to the university’s board of trustees.
“They are amazing, generous and humble people,” Sneed said. “I have so much respect for the way that they processed their pain and grief and turned it into a blessing for others.”
On Dec. 21, it will have been 12 years since Raya received the call that her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, 28-year-old Anthony Rios, had been slain in their home near 51st Street and Hardesty Avenue.
The memory is vivid for Raya.
It was just days before Christmas, and Olivia Raya hadn’t shown up for a pancake breakfast at Chubby’s on Broadway or a planned shopping outing with her mom and two younger sisters.
“It was getting late, around 6 p.m., and I started to have a bad feeling,” Raya said.
The boyfriend’s grandparents, who lived close by, went to the couple’s home and found them shot to death.
When the call came, “I remember asking, ‘Are they alive?’” Raya recalled. “I’m crying, ‘Not my daughter. It must be a mistake. Olivia was a fun person, a great friend, a loving aunt. Who would want to shoot her?’”
The week before, Raya had watched her daughter, who had worked five years for Blue Cross and Blue Shield, graduate from Rockhurst with a bachelor’s degree in business communications. Graduating was something Olivia told friends she knew would make her parents proud.
The night she was killed, Olivia Raya was home writing thank-you cards for the graduation gifts she’d received.
After the murders, her mother struggled to come to terms “with such a bad thing.” No arrest had been made. She was angry.
“Somebody knew who did this, and I was determined to find out who,” Raya said. “I didn’t think anyone would come forward and say what happened for a $1,000 reward.”
So Raya and friends started frying tacos and selling them at fundraising events. In four years, they increased the reward to $25,000. That’s when someone came forward with a tip and arrests were made.
Two years later, 33-year-old Dyshawn L. Johnson was sentenced to three consecutive life terms for the killings and for participating in a drug-trafficking conspiracy. Police had found almost 15 pounds of marijuana and more than 3 pounds of cocaine when they searched the couple’s home.
Co-defendant Michael L. Dale, 34, also was sentenced to three life terms. A third co-defendant, Bryant M. Burton, 39, pleaded guilty before trial and was sentenced to nine years in prison. In December 2013, he was granted nine years’ supervised release.
Raya said she is not angry anymore at her daughter’s killers. She no longer wants to see them die for what they did.
“I turned to my faith,” she said. “Yes, they murdered my daughter, but they will have to face God’s judgment one day.”
She prefers to think about the young women who “go on to graduate college and have the life my daughter wanted but never got a chance to have,” she said. “After I’m long gone, every year there will be an Olivia Raya scholar. My daughter’s name will live on. It doesn’t get better than that.”