Avonte Oquendo's older brother is set to begin law school this week, part of his mission to become a legal advocate to help children with autism in the wake of his brother's death.
Danny Oquendo, 27, passed the LSAT six years ago and is finally starting New York Law School this week, inspired by Avonte.
The autistic boy disappeared last October after he ran out of his Queens school unsupervised. After a months-long search that gripped the city, Avonte's remains were found in the East River near College Point in January.
The city's medical examiner ruled that the cause and manner of Avonte Oquendo's death could not be determined.
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Oquendo said the loss taught him a painful but valuable lesson.
"You shouldn't wait for something bad to happen to pursue those dreams because you could be the person that stops that from happening," said Oquendo.
He now wants to become a legal advocate for children with autism and to make sure they are "placed in the right programs, making sure they're being watched after carefully, and that if there's any wrongdoing done, they have legal representation."
Oquendo's mentor, Gary Mayerson, started the country's first law firm focused on autism cases. The two met when the firm offered a reward to find Avonte.
"The more and more we talked, it became obvious he wanted to go into this area and represent children with special needs, which was so admirable," said Mayerson.
The family's push for change has already helped to get Avonte's Law passed earlier this month, aimed at making schools safer for kids with special needs.
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Oquendo's dedication to giving a voice to children with autism and families of children with autism became clear when he wrote a blog post on the website Autism Speaks in March. In it, Oquendo recalled the terror and grief he felt following the months of Avonte's disappearance.
"Picture in your mind having a loved one who does not possess the ability to communicate effectively. Now imagine this loved one lost in the biggest city in the world, alone, cold, hungry, afraid or worse," Oquendo wrote.
"How you’re feeling right now is just a fraction of the pain we endured for the months following Avonte’s disappearance. Not knowing whether we would see our beloved Avonte again ate away our souls," he said.
Oquendo said in the blog he was determined to never let another family experience the same tragedy.
"While we may never know what exactly happened to my younger brother, what we can do is help to avoid this tragic event from happening again," he wrote. "The waves created by this catastrophic incident will ripple through time forcing immediate change to the current security standards of schools across the country, starting with the ones here in New York."
Oquendo said he believed change is possible because he witnessed just how quickly and tightly New Yorkers banded together in their mission to find Avonte, calling it "one of the most inspiring events to ever occur in my lifetime."
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Oquendo is set to take an internship at Mayerson's law firm next summer.