Denver Father Honors Son Through Suicide Prevention Work

Rick Padilla lost his son Jack to suicide in early 2019. Since then, the Denver father has changed careers to work full-time to prevent teen suicide.

“I get my strength thinking about leaving a legacy for Jack and all of these other kids that have died by suicide – and to prevent the next one,” he said. “We talked about it as a family and said, ‘We want to make a difference and save some lives so we’ve got to share our story.’” 

The father of two shared his favorite memories of the son he described as a loving teen whose smile could light up a room. Padilla remembered that when Jack was in elementary school, he got invited to a birthday party at a park, but none of the other kids who were invited wanted to go because the birthday boy had a disability. But Jack didn't care and asked his parents to take him anyway.

"So we went in and I took him, dropped him off at the parking lot. The mom had put balloons and everything up. There were no other kids there. Jack went, he stayed there for two hours. He had a ball, him and that other kid had a great time. We went and picked him up, and his mom said, ‘He made my son's day. No other kids showed up. They threw water balloons. They just had a great time,'" Padilla recalled. "That's just who he was, he always gave to others before himself."  

Child holding a hamster

But Jack also struggled with depression, according to Padilla, and because kids can mask their feelings well, parents and friends should be on the lookout for certain warning signs.

"One of the things I've learned along this journey is that what we thought were typical adolescent behaviors, isolation in their bedroom, changing friend groups, loss of appetite, today, I would see those signs differently," he added in hopes of reaching others whose friends or loved ones might be struggling.  

Padilla now fights for change as a Suicide Prevention Administrator within the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment. In October 2019, the state of Colorado together with a group of teens who have been impacted by suicide launched the Teens2Teens awareness campaign. Watch the playlist below and share to spread the word!

If you or anyone you know needs help, call Safe2Tell at 1-877-542-7233.

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Services
1-844-493-8255 | Free 24/7 Hotline
38255 | Text “TALK” to start a conversation
coloradocrisisservices.org | Chat

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-784-2433 | Free 24/7 Hotline
suicidepreventionlifeline.org | Chat

Denver Health Psych Emergency Services
(303) 602-7221 | Available 24/7

Denver Health Mobile Crisis Services
1-844-493-8255 | Available 24/7
Onsite and phone evaluations, information and referral services for Denver residents

Teens2Teens Campaign
Real teens. Real Stories of mental health.

 

 

Impact of cyberbullying

We didn't learn about it until after he passed and we cracked his phone. We were able to crack his phone and some of the text messaging in there were disgusting. It was hurtful. It was horrible stuff. Horrible stuff. It was from three varsity football players and a varsity lacrosse player. And Jack was, they were grooming him, but he was an underclassman. And what we found out was these same kids were predatory in nature. Their older brothers had done it, and they would pick up the behavior. They would go find kids and pick on them. For example, what we did learn is one time the four of them did surround Jack and one of his friends – and these were big kids – Jack was my size, lighter. They surrounded him, pushed Jack to the ground. They spit on him. They sat on him.

But Jack never told anybody. He always internalized stuff. And we learned about this afterwards. And of course, the school's response was, ‘Why wasn't it reported?’ Well, maybe a little out of touch, but in high school, kids don't tell. They don't. They get called snitches and they get labeled and they get bullied some more. So they internalize it. It’s just very different.

The other side of it is the cyber bullying stuff. Some of the stuff that we read, I think today unlike years ago, it's 24/7. The anonymity behind it as well. Somebody puts something out there through Snapchat or Instagram under some alias and other kids just feed in on it.

They don’t see the impact it’s having on the child that’s receiving that information. And again, Jack never shared any of that. And we always checked his phone and did that, but Snapchat goes away immediately. Instagram, they put together fake Instagram accounts. So you don’t even know who it is. Am I saying that was why Jack did that? I think it was a contributing factor.

We went to the Greenwood Village Police Department and demanded a criminal investigation, which they undertook and they didn't find any criminal culpability. They sent the case to the 18th Judicial District DA's office, who we met with two Fridays ago. And they said that under the current statute, it's not criminal in nature, first of all. And so we can't find anything enough to charge these kids with, even though we know they've done this before. And a couple of these kids had been arrested for doing this before, but they couldn't criminally charge them. The DA was very empathetic. I have to give him credit for that. I mean, he got emotional too. He has 15- and 18-year-old sons, and he got emotional about it. He says, ‘I really wish I had something, but I don't.’

So fast forward what I have done, and I mentioned I had two lawyers in the office and one on the phone and this woman who's an international educator around bullying and parenting, they are looking at the New Jersey statute [as a model], and they're going to revise it [for Colorado], and we're going to get it to a lawmaker. A lawmaker has agreed to sponsor that so we can make [the behavior] criminal.

I'm not out to ruin any child's life. There's a restorative justice part that they're going to build into that, meaning you get convicted and we're going to defer it for six months, but you're going to have to have certain types of classes around bullying and training and empathy that you're gonna have to go to. And if your parents don't take you to that, your parents are going to be fined $100 for the first offense and so on. Because these kids are learning this stuff somewhere. I know they learned it from their peers, but they also learned it somewhere.

We always imparted values, and they always were be kind to other people, treat people like you want to be treated, love your brother and always remember who your family is. Values like that, that we wanted to instill in our kids.

These kids are learning some of the behavior. They learned somewhere. I'm hoping other families are having conversations like that around their coffee, their dinner table.

Memories of Jack

We just have wonderful stories that we've heard since Jack passed about how empathetic he was. I'll share one with you. I'll share a couple.

So we did the out of the darkness walk at Coors Field a couple of weeks ago. And I see a young girl with a Jack Strong T-shirt, and I don't recognize her. So I go up to her and say, ‘I really like your T-shirt.’

She's kind of shy. She says, ‘Thank you.’

Then her mom, a few minutes later, walks up and says, ‘Are you Mr. Padilla?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She says, ‘Oh, I have to tell you a story.’

She says, ‘My daughter, she's in the ninth grade now. When she was in the eighth grade, there were a bunch of boys that were picking on her and they were shoving her in a locker, pushing her in lockers and locking her in the lockers and just bullying her.’ And she said, ‘Jack stuck up for her and got those boys to quit bullying her.’ She said, ‘We never knew – there were two Jacks that we knew she knew. We never knew who, which Jack it was, until Jack passed. Then she said ‘It’s Jack Padilla.’ And so that really moved us.

She called her daughter over, we talked and her daughter had on the T-shirt, she had the bracelet and she had a water bottle with the beads where she had spelled out Jack Padilla’s name on it. That's the kind of kid that he was, [he] always gave to others.

Another one, when he was in the third or fourth grade, he got invited to a birthday party at a park. The child that invited him had some disabilities, and all the other little kids didn't want to go because this kid had disabilities. Jack said, ‘I'm going to go.’ So we went in and I took him, dropped him off at the parking lot. The mom had put balloons and everything up. There were no other kids there. Jack went, he stayed there for two hours. He had a ball, him and that other kid had a great time. We went and picked him up, and his mom said, ‘He made my son's day.’ No other kids showed up. They threw water balloons. They just had a great time. That's just who he was, he always gave to others before himself.


Roxana A. Soto is a documentary film producer for the Denver Office of Storytelling. You can reach her at roxana.soto@denvergov.org.