By Ann Marie Shambaugh
Last year, DJ Preece helped sort toy and food donations at Zionsville United Methodist Church as a volunteer through the Character Counts program, part of the R.O.C.K. before- and after-school care ministry.
This year, the annual drive was held in his memory, as the 12-year-old Zionsville Middle School student died unexpectedly Sept. 12 after a brief illness. The ZUMC missions team and children in the Character Counts program partnered to sort and box about 2,400 donations, the largest amount ever collected in the annual drive.
“It brings tears to my eyes to have our son honored in such a way,” said Denise Preece, DJ’s mother. “Most kids think they don’t have an impact on others, especially adults, at the age of 12. This honor shows the impact a 12 year old can have on others and the lasting impression that can be made in the actions kids take.”
Denise, her husband, Doug, and daughter, Arden, are still trying to wrap their heads around what happened to DJ less than three months ago. He woke up the morning of Sept. 11 with what appeared to be flu-like symptoms. Early the next morning he became unresponsive and was rushed to the hospital, but doctors were unable to save him.
The family only recently received the results of an autopsy that revealed DJ suffered from appendicitis, although he did not have many of the usual signs, such as fever or doubling over in pain.
“We may never know the full story,” Denise said. “For parents, this ‘not knowing’ can be as hard as the grief as it leads to guilt and other emotions.”
As they wrestle through the holiday season, the family is taking comfort in remembering the good times with DJ, whom Denise described as witty, charming, intelligent and “honest to a fault.” She said he was known for his love of video games and books.
R.O.C.K. director Kathy Gibson said DJ – who was a junior staff member in the program this year – touched the lives of everyone who knew him.
“DJ had a huge heart full of love and compassion for people,” Gibson said. “He loved to help others and loved children. He had a joy and presence about him that you could not help loving him.”
The Preece family has started a Facebook page in DJ’s memory at facebook.com/davidjamespreece/?view_public_for=1503983746566375 to share thoughts and memories of their son. They have also started a Facebook group called #IamDJ for those who knew him personally to connect and support each other through their grief.
The outpouring of support from the community has shown the Preece family that they made the right decision in moving to Zionsville in 1999, Denise said, even as most of their family members are out of state. The food and toy drive proved that.
“The fact that we’ll never have another tomorrow with DJ here on this earth, and that so many people took the time to honor what he was, creates more memories for us to hold onto,” Denise said. “Combine that with providing for others in need and it’s the perfect combination of paying it forward.”