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Memorial transforms loss into legacy

When their 17-year-old son, Justin, died in 2008, Jeff and Jodi Meyer were looking for a way to celebrate the life and preserve the memory of someone who had so much passion and potential.

They kept his high school yearbooks, which captured the inspiration and impact he had on those around him. They looked to old photos, including one of Justin in front of a 1971 Pontiac Ventura II he had restored, to remember their son’s gentle and ever-present smile.

But to capture his spirit and carry on his legacy, they turned to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. Using memorials donated from his funeral, in 2009 they created the Justin Philipp Meyer Memorial Fund, an Acorn Fund they will add to over time.

"One of the most unimaginable things is when your child dies,” said Jodi Meyer. "For us, this is the greatest way for Justin to continue living through us."

Justin died Oct. 20, 2008 on Greenfield’s Root River Parkway after his car ventured off the road and slid sideways more than 400 feet before colliding into a tree. Police at the time said he was racing with another vehicle before losing control.

The Meyers wanted something that would not only serve as a memorial to Justin, but would also involve their son, Jason, and daughter, Jessica. Their estate attorney referred them to the Foundation.

"Justin was one of those unforgettable faces," Jodi said. "He could go anywhere and see somebody he knew."

Justin, a Whitnall High School senior, loved water sports, people and the outdoors. When he was 11 or 12, he developed a love for cars and was a natural at putting things together. The family garage became his second home and a place for him to master his mechanical skills. Like his father and grandfather, Justin was interested in construction and planned to major in it at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. His acceptance letter arrived in the mail the day he died.

But perhaps far greater than his love for cars and nature was his love for giving back, his parents said. As part of their confirmation service, Justin and Jessica collected and recycled cans and donated $200 to St. Therese of Lisieux, a church in Phillips where his family visited during the summer. The summer before he died, he went on a mission trip to Pine Ridge, an American Indian reservation in South Dakota.

"He was so sensitive about the abundance we had here," Jodi said. "I think Justin would have always been involved in something with the community."

Carrying on that generous spirit is important to the family. When the fund matures, it will become donor advised and will support scholarships at Whitnall. Justin had struggled in school due to a learning disability and his parents wanted others facing the same challenges to have the same opportunities as he did. The fund also will support the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s automotive repair program, where Justin was enrolled; St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Mary Catholic Faith Community in Hales Corners.

The Meyers plan to periodically add to the fund with gifts from fundraisers and also will contribute money they would have spent on Justin for birthday gifts, college tuition and holidays.

"There is so much to continue living for," Jodi said. "And this is one way to continue his legacy."

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