Andre Irizarry is haunted by questions every day of his life.
Why would his 18-year-old daughter take her own life? What made her feel so hopeless? Could he have done something to prevent the suicide? Were there warning signs that he missed? The list goes on and on.
Sometimes the guilt and sadness seem unbearable for Andre, 50, of New Baden, and his wife, Christina. Their beloved Sydney has been gone a year and nine months. They miss taking her on hunting trips and watching her play volleyball. They miss her kindness, her generosity and her smile.
“I used to call her ‘the defender,’” Andre said this month. “When she was little, she was bigger than the other kids her age, and she always stood up for the ones who couldn’t take care of themselves.”
The Irizarrys have decided that the best way to honor Sydney’s legacy is to help young people who are struggling because of depression, anxiety, stress, bullying, addiction, poverty, low self-esteem and other challenges in a complicated world.
Last year, the family formed the nonprofit Swing for Sydney Foundation, which has raised more than $20,000 through donations, walks and volleyball games. They’ve paid for school presentations, awarded college scholarships and bought food for families in need.
They spent $2,500 to establish a LifeSavers program at Central Community High School in Breese, where Sydney was a senior, and sent 10 students to a three-day training retreat in Du Bois. LifeSavers is a teenage crisis-prevention program that uses peer support.
“The retreat taught us to be listeners, to open our ears and close our mouths and just be there to show someone that you care,” said senior Abby Johnston, 17, of Aviston, who was friends with Sydney.
The Irizarrys have a blended family that includes Andre’s older daughter and Christina’s two daughters from previous marriages.
Sydney played volleyball, ran track and participated in Spanish Club and National Honor Society at Central, and she was a member of an H2 volleyball club that her father coached. After graduation, she planned to attend Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville on a volleyball scholarship.
At age 9, Sydney cut her hair and donated it to Locks of Love, an organization that provides wigs for children undergoing chemotherapy. Last year, she bought a meal for a homeless man during a volleyball road trip.
“She was good-hearted, very caring, very giving,” said Andre, a Puerto Rico native and civilian employee at Scott Air Force Base. “It was always, ‘You first, me second.’ ”
In the months leading up to Sydney’s suicide, she began having panic attacks. But she couldn’t explain why when she talked to her stepsister, Lauren Langhauser, 35, of Breese, a family and consumer science teacher at Central and co-adviser of the LifeSavers program.
Andre believes many teenagers lack the communication skills necessary to understand and cope with a “constant stream of negativity” coming at them from social and other media, leading some to feel overwhelmed and depressed.
But Sydney was “not on anybody’s radar screen” as a suicide risk, said Langhauser, who often asked Sydney to babysit her three children.
“One of the things that’s hard is figuring out what’s ‘normal’ for a teenager,” Langhauser said. “They’re tired. They’re moody. They’re difficult. What is a normal level of that and what is a sign or a red flag?”
The number of U.S. suicides among young people, ages 10 to 19, dropped from 1,857 in 1999 to 1,661 in 2007, then it began climbing again to reach 2,553 in 2016, according to a report published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That included 1,866 males and 687 females.
The number of suicides in that age group rose to 3,008 in 2017.
“Suffocation was the leading method among children and adolescents aged 10 to 19 years in 2016, slightly outnumbering suicide involving firearms,” the CDC report stated. Poisoning was third.
The Madison County coroner’s office reported two teen suicides in 2015 (ages 18 and 19); one in 2016 (age 14); three in 2017 (ages 17, 18 and 18); four in 2018 (ages 14, 17, 17 and 18); and one in 2019 (age 19). Clinton County had one over the five-year period. Figures weren’t available from St. Clair County.
Sydney died at the Irizarrys’ former home in Albers on April 4, 2018, a month and a half before her high school graduation. Her family is keeping details private.
News of Sydney’s death spread around Central quickly.
“Everybody was in shock,” her friend Abby said. “It was a very quiet day. It was very strange. The principal announced [on the intercom] that one of our students had passed away, and when that happened, it was like a waterfall of emotion. It was like a dam broke. Everybody was crying. It was not a good time.”
“Our kids were already in grief,” said counselor and LifeSavers co-adviser Trisha Lohman, 43, of Breese, noting that Central student Avery Crist had died in a car crash less than four months earlier.
Thousands of local residents showed up for Sydney’s visitation and memorial Mass at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Albers. An online obituary showed her smiling and wearing a denim jacket in her senior picture.
Family friend Jordan Carroll organized a volleyball benefit that raised about $4,000 for the Irizarrys, but instead of using the money for personal expenses, they rolled it into the Swing for Sydney Foundation. Its board is made up of Andre, his brother and sister.
After establishing Central’s new Lifesavers program, they contributed $1,500 to an existing program at Wesclin High School in Trenton. Central School Superintendent Dustin Foutch is a big fan. He went through the training as a teenager.
“It was a very valuable experience,” said Foutch, 41. “Students are more likely to open up and share their struggles with peers than they are to reach out to their parents or other adults. LifeSavers trains them to listen and tells them what to do with the information they receive.”
The foundation board also created a $500 annual scholarship in Sydney’s name.
Andre’s long-term goal is to raise public awareness of the teen suicide problem and get people talking about it so they can help find solutions. In the meantime, Abby and other Central students are doing their part, one listening session at a time.
“I would definitely say there are a few people at school. ... You can sense that they’re struggling,” Abby said. “But there are also a few more that could be struggling and you don’t even know it. Everybody is struggling from something.”