On Saturday, July 9th, 2022, a birthday celebration was held at Naperville’s Frontier Skate Park for Max Wijangco, an adventurous and athletic Benet Academy student who loved to skateboard, mountain bike and snowboard. The event was to commemorate what would have been Max’s 16th birthday after he tragically took his own life earlier this year. In the wake of their heartbreaking loss, the Wijangco family wanted to make sure that Max’s memory would continue on, while doing what they can help others in similar situations. Ray and Jill Wijangco started Max’s Mission as a non-profit fundraiser on GoFundMe in order to raise money to provide mental health awareness and to help the survivors of suicide. Frontier Skate Park was a fitting host, as it served as home to many of Max’s favorite memories.
“Today we are celebrating our son, Max,” said Jill Wijangco. “He would have turned 16 on June 23rd. He ended his life on March 10th. So this is a celebration of his life, who he was, and the community that mattered to him the most, which was the skate park and these kids. He was wild, energetic, crazy, smart, crazy, funny, and always on 24-7.”
“I’m a skateboarder in the area and this is my local skate park here,” said Ryan Ross. “Max came here a lot and I’m quite a lot older than Max, but I was able to recognize his talent immediately when I saw him here. And just through that I introduced myself to him or vice versa. We just started talking and knew of each other and started hanging out at the park all the time and watching him skate was always incredible. He was always super-talented from the first day.”
“Oh, Max was just different,” added Luke Wiatrak. “Like he would always just do funny stuff, try to flip off things and just he was just a very charismatic kid. So that was always fun to have around. You know, you want that energy around you.”
Turning Tragedy to Charity
Max’s birthday celebration at the skate park served as another way to honor one of his favorite pastimes with neighbors, classmates and friends from the local skateboarding community. The initial fundraiser has been a tremendous success, raising over $100,000 since it first began in late March.
“The money is going to be spent in two ways the prevention side of things with suicide, hoping to get outreach programs here into the skate parks, therapists to work with the kids here in the skate parks, and then post-vention working with the families who have been directly affected by suicide loss and getting in with those families immediately after the loss and helping them,” Jill Wijangco explained.
Community Comes Together
There were fundraising donations, food provided by local restaurants and of course a skating competition to entertain the large crowd looking to honor Max’s memory. That community of skaters always made Max feel welcome and accepted, which was greatly appreciated by his mother, Jill. And it was a trait that Max himself passed on to others as well.
“I think the importance is, is that this is a group of individuals that accept everyone. And that’s hard to find anywhere in society. Today, this group of kids is accepting of everyone. I have a kid who was in seventh grade who contacted me. I was just talking to him and told me that Max made a difference in his life and Max, if he were alive, is going to be a sophomore.”
“He taught me how to ski it meant the first time I was here, I couldn’t really do anything,” said Nathan Jones. “Any kind of came up, showed me some tips, and then we started just talking.” I mean, you’re just all it’s just so happy. I mean, you always brightened up my day and everybody else’s day and everybody here.”
Projects like Max’s Mission are more important than ever with the teenage suicide at an all time high. While the topic of mental health has certainly been brought to the forefront in recent years, therapists and mental health facilities are often times struggling to find capacity to help and identify those in need. Fundraising increases awareness, while sending help and resources on the way, which makes events like the Max’s Mission celebration such a positive experience for everyone involved.
“Yeah, it’s super cool to see this turn out,” said Ross. “So many people here to show their support and love to see this support from the local businesses as well. It’s really nice and just reassuring that, you know, people are out here to help everyone else and there’s a good community going on around here.”
“I think it’s great,” said Jones. “It sucks that he is no longer with us to see how great this event is. But I think he would be happy about it.”
“It’s great,” noted Wiatrek. “It brings everyone together and it’s just great that, like, if he was around he would be so hyped to know everyone cares so much.”
“Wonderful turnout,” said Jill Wijangco with a smile. “We could not be more thrilled. Most of our neighborhood is here. There are so many kids from the skateboarding community here. What a positive, wonderful day.”
Reporting for Naperville News 17, I’m Justin Cornwell.