Sometimes positive outcomes come from even the most tragic events. The death by suicide of 16 year-old Murrieta Valley High School junior Diego Villarreal is one such event. It was difficult to see anything good ever coming from that tragic August day, but the Villarreal family has vowed to give back to the community of Murrieta in response to the love and support they received in the dark days following Diego’s unexpected death.
To honor the life of Diego, a small team of friends and family have started the Project 99 foundation to educate students about the effects of suicide and to hopefully prevent any future tragedies like this from occurring in our small, tight-knit community.
“We wanted to share our experience with suicide so no other kid or their families will have to experience this kind of grief,” shared Ed Villarreal, father of Diego.
This year a Project 99 Panel was presented to all second semester ninth-grade health students at Murrieta Valley High. This panel included Ed Villarreal, MVHS senior Kaylee Williams, MVUSD counselor and MVHS alumni Tamara Dewey, and Diego’s fifteen-year-old sister Ava. They presented the effects a suicide can have on the loved ones left behind.
Through these discussions, students are encouraged to seek support for themselves and others experiencing a crisis situation. Students are given resource cards with agencies they can contact when support is needed, and students are reminded that no matter how bleak life may seem, there is always a brighter situation on the horizon if they access their support systems during times of difficulty.
In addition to continuing the Project 99 Panels next year at MVHS, plans are in the works to pair these panels with a training for students that will provide them with the skills needed to keep a student in crisis safe until the student can be put in contact with a professional. Moving these trainings to the other high schools in the Murrieta Valley USD is also something that is being considered for the next school year.
Thanks to the generous donations from heartbroken family, friends and community members, Project 99 was also able to gift ten Murrieta Valley High School seniors with scholarships in Diego’s name. On Tuesday, May 31, families and teachers gathered to celebrate seniors Leilani Adams, Dexter Cole, Alex Fewell, Anthony Garcia, Anthony Nash, Maxwell Painter, Sammy Quinlan, Cade Vinsky, Kaylee Williams, and Quireo “Q” Woodley. All students were recommended by teachers for their ability to overcome challenging life circumstances without compromising their education in the process.
During the event, students were reminded that beyond the monetary award, Project 99 intends to give students a message of hope and determination and asks that students spread that message onto others.
Recipient and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) President Kaylee Williams is thankful to receive this honor to put toward her college tuition and attaining her BA. “I plan to move on and become a police officer and continue to help others in my community,” Williams shares.
As the school year winds down the Villarreal family is facing the anniversary of the loss of their precious son and brother. Through Project 99 the Villarreals are eager to continue to caution students against the ripple effects suicide leaves on those left behind, and through education they are seeking to instill hope, determination, and an appreciation of all that life has to offer.
Press Release Written by Michelle McCarthy