Project 99 is a nonprofit organization founded in honor of Diego Villarreal, a 16 year old student athlete at Murrieta Valley High School who passed away in August of 2015 as a result of suicide.
Diego Villarreal was a son, a brother, a friend and among so many other things, an athlete. He was passionate about becoming the best football player that he could be and aspired to play college football.
For Diego a letter from diego's tutor
I have known Diego since he was six years old. I had the privilege of becoming his tutor at the end of kindergarten and I worked with him one to two times a week for the last 11 years. One thing that never changed about Diego is that he has always been a sweet, kind, young man. He was quiet and reserved, but he had a great sense of humor. For example, Diego would often walk into our Bruin household with his USC colors shining bright. He would walk in with a smirk just daring me to say something. And yes, Diego, I am wearing your Fight On lanyard today for you and Sean is allowing it.
Because Diego was always quiet and reserved, sometimes in a classroom setting it might have appeared as if he was disinterested or not caring what was going on in the classroom—but I want his teachers to know that he did care, deeply—I know because of the conversations I had a chance to have with Diego about what he was learning once we had a chance to process it.
Another thing that people might not be aware about with Diego is that because of his learning disabilities school was always a struggle for him. Reading, writing, and math did not come easily to him, so he often had to work two or three times as hard and spend two or three times the amount of time as the typical student. The great thing about Diego was that he ALWAYS worked hard and last year I am proud to say that all his effort paid off in reading because he finally reached a proficient reading level. He even spent the summer reading books for pleasure. That's when I knew I had him where I wanted him with reading. School is sometimes like a marathon race where we only celebrate the elite athletes who finish the race in under three hours—but we don’t celebrate the people who work just as hard to finish the race in 6, or 7 or 8 hours or more. They have to put in even more effort and time and perhaps courage to succeed, yet we may even mock their efforts because of how long it takes them to finish. I had so much admiration for the true grit Diego showed me by never giving up no matter how much he struggled. I wish we celebrated the perseverance that Diego and other students like him put forth as much as we did students for whom school came easy.
The last thing about Diego and school is that he never wanted to ask for help. His mom and I would always encourage him to ask the teachers questions if he didn't understand, but he often told us that he just didn't want to bother them. I find it very sad that this same characteristic seems to have carried over into his emotional life as well. I am heartbroken that Diego didn't ask us for help. As I look out on this audience filled with teenagers, I cannot miss this opportunity to convey to you what I wish I would have imparted more strongly to Diego.
First of all, if you are thinking that life is better without you, please understand that the hole you leave in our lives is so deep that it is going to be difficult for us to fill back in. You matter! You make a difference! And no world without you will be a better place!
The second thing I think you need to understand is that in life we are going to face obstacles, and sometimes these obstacles will seem insurmountable. But don't give up on yourself--learn to jump higher, find a way to move around the obstacles, or build a ladder to scale over them. Diego spent his life trying to climb over those educational obstacles, I just wish he had hung on a little longer because he was almost there.
Finally, it is important to understand that you need to reach out to others. If you are feeling sad, if you are feeling as if you do not measure up, if you feel as if you can't possibly go on, you need to talk to someone. It is not a weakness to ask for help! If you don’t, we are left wondering what we could have done, how we could've missed the signs, what we could have done to help. Please ask for help—you are absolutely, NEVER a bother!
We loved having Diego in our lives, as part of our family, and we will try to Fight On without him—he will always be in our hearts.
Project 99’s mission is to educate teens and the community about the negative consequences of suicide and to show students how one choice can devastate an entire community. Our panel of speakers discusses the topics of how suicide directly affects one’s family and community, resources available to those affected, other ways of coping and releasing negative emotions, and reassures students that they are not alone in their time of distress.