If you had asked Debbie Schopp a year ago about suicide, she probably wouldn’t know the statistics. “Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students,” says the Weston mother, who is now herself a statistic – one of the thousands of parents each year who lose a child to suicide.

On Feb. 12, 2015, her 21-year-old son, Dylan, took his own life at a place that meant so much to him: Markham Park, just six miles from his alma mater Cypress Bay High School, where he would mountain bike with his father, David, and meet up with his best friends for barbecues. His nickname was Sunshine, a moniker given to him by a wrestling coach because he was always smiling. 

All signs pointed to Dylan planning on having a life beyond his 21st year. His mother said he had a “futures” list on his computer. “By the age of this, he wanted to have a certain kind of car, and by the age of this, he wanted to be married, and by the age of this...” she says. 

He also was looking forward to taking one of his many trips to visit his sister, Dara, in New York, which was planned for only a few days after his death.Family and friends never expected the guy who was always the “life of the party” to take his own life. “Do I wish I had an answer for you as to why?” Debbie asks. “Yes, I do. Then I’d have an answer for myself.”

The Schopps say they had an immediate outpouring of support after Dylan’s death. “Everyone kept asking, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’” says Debbie. The family made the decision to create The Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation to help those who may be struggling or for family’s coping with the pain and grief after a loved one’s suicide.

“We want to keep Dylan’s spirit and his smile alive,” says Debbie.

The Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation has partnered with Florida’s Initiative for Suicide Prevention and its HOPE (Helping Overcome Problems Effectively) clubs, which are now in 18 schools in Broward County. According to FISP, Broward is the No. 1 county in Florida for suicides.

Funds raised by the foundation also benefit some of Dylan’s favorite causes: the Humane Society, Operation Smile and Wounded Warriors. 

Dylan attended Florida State University, then transferred to Florida Atlantic University. Two weeks prior to his death, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“Dylan always wanted to be more. To be honest, my fear was that he might have come back from the Army as a Wounded Warrior,” says Debbie.

A video by Jake Miller, now a Warner Bros. recording artist, features footage of Dylan through the years – as a toddler and as a teen, skateboarding, jet-skiing, and “just being Dylan,” says Miller.

He was a year older than Dylan, but they traveled in the same circles in high school. He remembers a night around 4 a.m. when a bunch of friends, including Dylan, were eating Taco Bell and hanging out in Miller’s bedroom. “We decided to all write verses for a rap song. Dylan’s was ‘The sun don’t rise without Sunshine.’ I don’t think he realized how big of an impact that line would have.”

The verse is now the slogan for The Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation and is included in a video by Miller entitled “Sunshine” that’s received airplay on MTV. “I didn’t want people to think I was using the situation to my advantage,” Miller says. “It wasn’t about me or my music, it was about Dylan.”

There are also two park benches that commemorate Dylan’s life, including one in Central Park. A few weeks after her brother’s death, Dara returned to New York City. Her friend, Leila Milgrim, had sent her a link that showed a Web page she’d set up to raise money for a bench in Central Park as a tribute to Dylan. “It was $10,000 and we’d have a year to raise it,” Dara says. “I figured we could easily do it in a year.” In just four months, enough money was raised. She found the perfect bench in a beautifully woodsy area of the park.

Another commemorative bench closer to home was installed last April at the new Butterfly Garden inside Markham Park. “We’ll never know what was going through Dylan’s head or what others are thinking when they make their decision, but at the end of the day, my family and I just want to help other people,” says Dara, who is two-and-a-half years older than her brother.

“Help is always there. Take a step back and see past your current struggle. There’s a good chance, whatever it is, it won’t last forever.” ■

Sunshine at the Park Day

On Saturday, March 5, The Dylan Schopp Sunshine Foundation will host its first-annual Sunshine at the Park Festival at Markham Park, 16001 W. State Road 84, in Sunrise. Family-fun events will include a rock-climbing wall, a bounce house, fitness, yoga and chair massages from aLaya Spa, BB3 Training Center and the YMCA of Weston. Entertainment is planned along with a silent auction. Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children. Proceeds go to supporting the foundation and its partners. For more information, visit dylansfoundation.org.

This story, written by Michelle F. Solomon, originally appeared in the February 2016 edition of Lifestyle Media Group Weston Magazine. Check out the full story here.