WHS paraprofessional remembered for his heart of gold
“He was so loved by his students,” shared Balster. “So many of them reached out when they found out the news. He had calls until his last moments of life."
WORTHINGTON — Genuine, kind, funny, a man with a golden soul — a person with a golden heart. Those are the words used to describe William Merida Diaz, a beloved paraprofessional in District 518 who died May 3 at Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis after a lengthy liver disease. He was 28.
Diaz had dreamed of becoming a teacher, shared longtime friend Marlen Balster, of Worthington. The two grew up together in Lexington, Nebraska, and both moved to Worthington about the same time.
“He's been a part of my family for as long as I can remember,” said Balster, who works for the Southwest Crisis Center.
Diaz was diagnosed with a liver disease as a child and underwent a liver transplant in July 2022. His body initially accepted the new organ and Diaz returned to work. Balster said they all thought he was in the home stretch of his disease.
When complications arose, followed by infections, Diaz received treatment in Worthington and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, before being referred back to his care team at Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center. There, it was discovered his organ functions were no longer working at their expected levels. During surgery, his medical team discovered cancer — Kaposi sarcoma was the diagnosis.
Diaz ultimately went into liver failure and died knowing the impact he’d made on students and staff in District 518, thanks to the many calls he accepted while hospitalized.
“He was so loved by his students,” shared Balster. “So many of them reached out when they found out the news. He had calls until his last moments of life.
“We joked that he was sticking around to hear all of the sweet goodbyes as he often had a big head and gushed over how loved he was,” Balster added. “We always knew what an awesome person he was, but seeing the impact he had on his students and the community was so much deeper than we ever imagined. It was such an honor and sweet to see just how big his impact really was.”
Diaz attended District 518 as a student up until middle school, when his mother was deported back to Guatemala and he returned with her. He came back to Worthington at age 16 or 17 and graduated from Worthington High School. He served as a para in the district for more than five years, first at the middle school and then at WHS.
Jose Morales Collazo, a WHS science teacher, first met Diaz three years ago when he started teaching in the district.
“He was the first paraprofessional I ever worked with,” Collazo said. The two quickly connected through their ethnicity — both are Hispanic — and a realization they both enjoyed video games.
Diaz and Collazo would talk about gaming consoles and games, and Diaz mentioned his hope of creating a club for gaming at the school.
“He mentioned he would like kids to have a club where they can play video games and all play together,” Collazo shared. While he thought it was a cool idea, Collazo said as a first-year teacher he wasn’t sure about getting involved in something new.
Diaz took his idea to another high school teacher, Patrick Mahoney, who was quickly onboard with the idea. When Collazo learned the club was going to move forward, he signed on as assistant coach to Diaz and the WHS esports team began to take shape.
“I can’t fill his shoes,” Collazo said through tears. “He had this ability to touch the students’ hearts on a personal level that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do. He was part of the students; he wasn’t like staff. He would have lunch with them … and every time I walked through the hallways he was surrounded by students. It was like he was one of them.”
Collazo said Diaz kept his illness a secret — he hated for people to take pity on him.
“When his eyes were yellow, he was very self-conscious of that because it showed there was something wrong with him and he couldn’t hide it anymore,” Collazo shared. “He would be honest with me, but not with the students. He didn’t want the students to feel sad for him.”
Diaz was scheduled to speak at the WHS commencement ceremony later this month and, according to Balster, was extremely nervous, yet excited about the opportunity.
“He told his mom he had to do it because his students meant that much to him. He was going to get over his nerves and get up and speak at their graduation specifically for them,” Balster shared. “He was so genuine and kind. He had such a golden soul, and it touched so many people.”
Following Diaz’ death last week, the school district brought in counselors to meet with students and staff. The esports team gathered on Monday to talk about what they can do to honor their coach and friend, and Collazo said he will take those ideas to the principal for consideration.
“He was a person with a golden heart — he fought until the end,” Collazo said of Diaz. “I think when he parted, he parted with an expression of gratitude because he knew how many people were there for him at the end.
“The last words he told me before he died was thank you. He was just grateful for what everybody did to keep him here, but he knew he was ready to go.”
Visitation for Diaz is from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, at Benson Funeral Home, 1225 Ryan’s Road, Worthington. A Go Fund Me page created last week, seeking to raise $15,000 toward the cost of sending Diaz’ body to his homeland of Guatemala, had exceeded $13,500 in just five days.