VILLA PARK – Willowbrook High School students gathered around a pair of newly planted trees in Willowbrook Park along with the family of Emilio Perez on a misty fall morning to remember the Villa Park teen.
“Not only our family … but this high school, this community, everybody lost somebody that they loved and cared for dearly,” said Al Perez, Emilio’s father.
Emilio was killed in a hit-and-run crash in March, the day after his 17th birthday, while walking along Interstate 88 near Joslin. His car was found about a mile east of the crash with an empty tank of gas.
Emilio’s family decided to honor his mother, Mona Perez, who died seven years ago with her own tree across from Emilio’s and a new bench between them. In pairs, in groups and individually, those who knew Emilio took turns sitting on the new bench at the ceremony Oct. 18.
Rev. Mark Cote of St. Alexander Catholic Church in Villa Park blessed both newly planted trees and the bench, just across from Willowbrook High School where Emilio had been an honor roll student.
“I’ll carry you in my heart until we meet again,” sang Taylor Ratkovich, 16, as she played her guitar for a somber crowd.
Ratkovich, a junior at Willowbrook, wrote the song about a month after Emilio’s sudden death. The two had been friends as long as Ratkovich can remember.
Failing to hold back tears, the teen said she hopes people remember Emilio’s sense of humor and personality most of all.
Person after person recalled Emilio’s ability to share laughter. His cousin Megan Alvarez, 22, called it “contagious.”
“Anytime you were with Emilio, he’d make you laugh,” said Alvarez, who also read a poem during the ceremony in memory of her aunt, Emilio’s mother.
Al Perez described his son as ambitious. The former French Club president and Willowbrook junior also was a member of the school’s social studies honor society, Civitas, and had started looking at colleges in the area.
“He had his whole life ahead of him, a lot of plans for the future, and it was cut short,” Perez said.
The Perez family insists on giving back to the community and school that Emilio loved so much. They’ve started a scholarship fund in his name and plan to award a student in his graduating class, the Class of 2015, with the first of what they hope to be an annual award.
“As tragic as this was and still is every day, something good’s got to come out of this,” Al Perez said.
He also has planned a 5K walk/run in honor of his son for April 26, 2015.
When asked about the show of support for the tree-planting ceremony, Perez said he wasn’t surprised by the turnout of neighbors, family members and classmates.
“Too many people loved Emilio,” he said.
His niece agreed.
“It means the world to our family,” Alvarez said. “I mean, these last seven months have been obviously a nightmare, so to see all these people and this community come out and support Emilio and his mom, it means the world to us.”
Emilio’s father invited all those who attended to stop by his home after the ceremony to share stories and memories of the young man who brought smiles to so many faces during his short lifetime.
No shortage of kind words were spoken of Emilio, and they all seemed to share the same image of a young man who loved his community and sharing joy with others.
His stepmother, Lauren Perez, read a poem Emilio had written about himself in seventh grade. Even at 12 years old, he seemed to have a good idea of who he was and how he would be remembered.
“I’m a simple guy who enjoys life,” Emilio repeated throughout the poem.
Maria E. Romero, 41, of Rockford, was charged with leaving the scene of an accident involving a death and failure to report an accident causing a death Sept. 2 in connection with Emilio Perez's death. Romero is scheduled to enter a plea Nov. 6 in Rock Island County Court.