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New Las Vegas program honors memory of slain UNLV student

In a Las Vegas backyard, rising high school senior Paula Davis stood on a stage in summer 2017, about to sing.

Footage shows her approach the microphone and smile. Her mother is at the piano, and her father, siblings and church friends watch from the crowd.

“He’s a very smart prince,” she starts, the opening line to “On the Steps of the Palace,” a song from the musical “Into the Woods.” In it, Cinderella debates whether to stay and become a princess or go back to her own life, where she can retain her own identity.

“He’s a prince who prepares,” she continues with assertion, planting her hands to her hips.

The event showcased singers from three area Catholic churches, including St. John Neumann in North Las Vegas, where Davis was baptized. It’s also where she received her first communion, was confirmed in high school and on Saturday, where her funeral will take place.

“It’s your first big decision,” Davis sings a few verses later. “The choice isn’t easy to make.”

“To arrive at a ball is exciting and all — once you’re there, though, it’s scary,” she continues. “And it’s fun to deceive when you know you can leave, but you have to be wary.”

The 19-year-old was killed Sept. 6, hours after she sent her ex-boyfriend, Giovanni Ruiz, a final break-up text. Her father tracked her phone to a North Las Vegas park two hours after she was reported missing. Inside the family van, he found her dead.

Ruiz was arrested days later, accused of shooting her in the head.

“You can’t prepare for a tragedy like this,” Sean Davis told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week.

‘Bubbly, friendly personality’

Growing up, Paula Davis was rooted in her faith. As young as age 8, she became an altar server, and even through high school and the start of college, she could be found at St. John Neumann each Sunday singing, playing flute or playing the drums at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. as part of the pastoral music program.

“She had the most bubbly, friendly personality,” the program’s director, Lissy de Jesus, said.

As part of her confirmation, she often volunteered at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada. While studying economics at UNLV, she continued to volunteer, serving food to the homeless, working in the food pantry and teaching English.

“She was such a good example for all the youth in our community,” de Jesus said.

In the days after her death, her family was isolated in their grief. There was a police investigation, so the only people filing in and out of their home were detectives, despite an outpouring of community support.

“It wasn’t normal,” her father, a middle school principal, said. “It’s a whole different level of stress and concern and focus.”

The morning after Ruiz was arrested, Sean Davis woke up with a need to do something good.

He brainstormed with his wife and children. Together, they considered starting a scholarship for students who one day want to work for the FBI, like Paula had dreamed of doing. Then Catholic Charities came to mind.

In a conversation with Deacon Tom Roberts, who serves as the organization’s president, they learned about a new program that aims to break the cycle of homelessness for those suffering from mental illnesses.

It struck a chord with Sean Davis, whose brother died in 2018 after struggling for years with schizoaffective disorder and homelessness. So Roberts agreed to rename the program the Paula Marie Davis Medically Assisted Treatment Program.

Since Sept. 12, more than 30 people have donated a collective $3,000 to the program, which can currently accommodate 10 men battling opioid addictions. As it expands, the program will help treat, then house and employ men and women struggling with mental illness, addiction and alcoholism.

“It seemed like a good fit and rang true to goals of service that Paula had,” Sean Davis said.

He pointed to a scholarship application letter his daughter wrote in high school.

“Ultimately, I strive to be a good, kind, supportive person who makes a difference in other people’s lives,” she wrote. “When I die, I hope that that is how I am remembered.”

Later in the letter, she added: “Each day, there is always another good deed waiting to be done.”

‘Gotta love Paula’

The Sunday after Paula’s death, her family once again attended church. It’s where they draw their strength.

Together, they performed with the pastoral music program at each Mass. To their surprise, every member of the program joined them in support.

“The fact that she was always present makes it even harder, because you expect her to be there,” the program’s director, de Jesus, said of Paula Davis. “You feel this emptiness.”

The new Catholic Charities program gives the Davis family hope. In life, Paula touched so many people, and now, even in death, she is still helping others.

“So I’m grateful,” Sean Davis said. “And I’m proud. I’m proud of her.”

In the 2017 video, Paula Davis, then a student at Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, outstretches her arms in the backyard, belting out a high note to finish the song. The crowd cheers, and in the background, her mom smiles.

“Gotta love Paula,” the emcee says.

Her funeral will take place at 12 p.m. on Saturday at the church she loved, located at 2575 W. El Campo Grande Ave. It is open to the public.

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter.

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