Wilber Portillo was an 18-year-old former urban farmer and budding entrepreneur when he died with COVID-19

“He was a guy with a lot of light.”
5 min. read
Metro Caring urban farming intern Wilber Portillo. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

He loved snowboarding, entrepreneurship and inspiring others. Wilber Portillo was 18 and infected by COVID when he died Nov. 19.

"It's a little bit difficult to know that he doesn't exist physically anymore," Portillo's uncle, Oscar Castillo, said. "He was a guy with a lot of light."

Portillo's parents brought him to the United States when he was five. Two years later, his parents returned to their homeland, El Salvador. Portillo did not want to leave and moved in with Castillo. Even at 7, he was decisive, his uncle said. Portillo grew into a teen who rose early and started his days with cold showers.

Portillo graduated in May from Career Education Center Early College, a Denver Public Schools magnet high school in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. As he was finishing high school, he earned a certificate in real estate from Red Rocks Community College, and he launched an online company he called My Journey My Success to sell such items as home gym equipment, yoga mats and water bottles.

"He had a lot of discipline," Castillo said. "When he wanted to do something, he just went for it. He was determined to do something positive with his life. And he did for the time he was with us."

Jess Harper, chief gardener for the Denver anti-hunger nonprofit Metro Caring, saw Portillo's lighthearted and serious sides. Portillo and a fellow DPS student interned last summer as urban farmers with Metro Caring.

Harper remembers the two young men rolling in on their skateboards to the hydroponic farm in a shipping container on an SCL Health Saint Joseph parking lot in City Park West where food is grown for Metro Caring to distribute to the needy. Portillo would jokingly tell Harper that he needed to rest after the ride, then admit to having alighted early from the bus he'd been on for the first part of the commute so he could have more time on his skateboard.

Once they got to work, Portillo and his fellow intern, Abraham Rodriguez, were dedicated. Harper said she saw herself as working for them.

"They ran the farm for the summer," she said. "My goal was to be the support crew."

During what was the pilot of the hydroponic program, Portillo and Rodriguez produced a total of about 2,000 heads of lettuce in two harvests.

"Which was pretty impressive, given that they were just starting," Harper said. "They were really proud of what they did. I'm proud of them too."

Wilber Portillo, left, and fellow Metro Caring urban farming intern Abraham Rodriguez. (Donna Bryson/Denverite)

On its Facebook page, Metro Caring called Portillo a "founding member of our Hydro Farm high school internship program" whose "creative thinking enriched the program in ways that far outlast his time in the farm itself."

Last year Portillo started a YouTube channel he called "My Journey My Success," the name he gave his sporting goods business. He posted a half dozen videos in which he talked about hobbies such as snowboarding, described his dream of becoming "the most successful person that I can be," and offered advice to others on how to achieve their goals. He urged viewers to be disciplined and seek out mentors.

"He just kind of got you in his world," his uncle said, describing his nephew gathering friends and cousins to exercise on the steps of Red Rocks Amphitheatre or run mountain trails.

"He even started with me," Castillo said, laughing. Castillo, a general contractor, said Portillo urged him to expand his business by buying houses to renovate and sell.

Once COVID reached Denver and it became clear that the virus was having an outsize impact on Hispanics, Castillo said he talked to his health-conscious nephew about staying safe. He said Portillo observed social distancing, which was easier to do because his business was online.

But a few months into the pandemic, Portillo and a cousin traveled to Los Angeles to look at products for the business. Upon their return, both showed symptoms such as fever and were tested for COVID. They tested positive, recovered and follow up tests were negative.

Two months after that, Portillo got a fever after attending a party. Two other people at that party tested positive for COVID. Portillo went to a clinic for a COVID test and a general checkup. He went to bed that night and never woke. The clinic informed his family two days after Portillo's death that he had been COVID-positive, Castillo said.

"It just took us by surprise how it happened," Castillo said. "We will never find out what caused his death."

Dr. Michelle Barron, the senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth, said she has spoken to many young people infected by COVID who for months afterward struggled with problems such as lack of energy and memory lapse.

"It's a serious disease," she said, adding that scientists are still trying to understand the long-term impact it might have on the heart and other organs.

"Whatever your age is, it does not necessarily make you immune to potential affects," said Barron, who was not involved in Portillo's treatment.

One of Portillo's cousins, Jamie Gomez-Gonzalez, started a GoFundMe campaign to help cover funeral and other costs. In a campaign message, Gomez-Gonzalez urged people to take COVID seriously, "no matter how young or healthy you may seem. Please stay at home as much as you can."

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