ELYRIA — When students at Elyria Catholic High School learned classmate and friend Jakob Hwang had entered hospice care, a telling step in his nearly two-year battle against non-Hodgkins lymphoma, they formed a plan to paint the rock in front of the school lime green.
Students gathered Tuesday on the school’s lawn while members of the soccer team painted “We are Hwang Strong,” in bold white letters. Many also donned green T-shirts with #HwangStrong across the chest.
With the words, students added two dates to the rock, signifying a heartbreaking update to Jakob’s story.
“09/11/00” and “06/11/2018” book-ended the boulder.
Jakob died Monday, three months shy of his 18th birthday and just 17 days after graduating from the Elyria school.
Tuesday’s rock painting turned into a celebration of his life.
“We want people to know we will do whatever we can for this community and for his family,” said Meghan Janscura, 16, a junior. “We know he is not with us in person, but his spirit is here and has always been here.”
Students prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and later joined the Rev. Andrew Hoover on the soccer field for Mass.
“We wanted to do this no matter what for Jakob because he always showed up when we needed him,” said 16-year-old Jake Records.
Elyria Catholic President Amy Butler said Tuesday at the May commencement ceremony, Jakob stayed in the upper bleachers seated in a wheelchair. He was too weak to walk with the rest of his graduating class. When his name was called, Butler walked to Jakob to hand him his diploma.
“He was trying the best he could at the time,” she said. “That was Jakob. He was so strong and such an inspiration to us all.”
Days ago, Jakob’s mother, Karri Hwang, updated the #HwangStrong Facebook page with a request for prayers.
“I have been trying to think of the best way to make this post,” she wrote. “There is no easy way to say, Jakob has been under hospice care for the last three weeks. John, Jakob, Grace, and I are extremely heart broken. We still ask God for a miracle, but also realize that it is looking like the miracle may be for Jakob to become pain free and go home to heaven.”
Her next post came late Monday.
“Jakob received his miracle at 4:07 pm.,” she wrote. “He passed peacefully surrounded by his family. We appreciate all of the prayers for Jakob and our family. We are terribly sad and grieving.”
Tuesday’s rock-painting memorial celebrated Jakob’s life as an athlete, student, son, brother and friend.
“Jakob was always smiling. There was never a time when I would see him and he was not smiling or telling us to smile,” said 16-year-old Patrick Delaney. “No matter what, he loved life.”
Jakob’s battle started a few weeks after his 16th birthday.
What many hoped was just a back injury from aggressive play — Jakob was the soccer team’s goalkeeper — turned out to be Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Almost immediately two things happened: Jakob turned his faith into fuel to fight the cancer, and his classmates became steadfast backers.
“He had an enormous amount of trust in God and faith in God,” said Butler. “Our students saw that. I don’t think many of them have ever experienced someone their age going through something so hard and passing away. But they saw him handle it with courage and keep coming to school. He really embraced what he was going through with strength.”
A day after learning of his illness, the Panthers, many of whom played with Hwang’s initials “JH” and the hashtag #HwangStrong written on the tape on their wrists, won an emotional soccer game in his honor.
“I had the team look up into the crowd before the game, take a deep breath and realize that we’re all in it together. We’re all in it to fight for Jakob,” Elyria Catholic coach Eric Kisela said in October 2016, moments after the game ended.
That level of support never wavered among the students.
From T-shirt sales to fundraisers and prayer circles to sporting green #HwangStrong wristbands every day, Jakob was a part of Elyria Catholic even when he could not walk the halls.
Students flooded his North Ridgeville neighborhood with an outpouring of support nearly a year ago when Jakob and his family prepared to travel to Los Angeles Children’s Hospital for experimental treatment.
“They have been pretty tried and true throughout this,” Butler said. “They have never forgotten him.”
Jakob never let his condition determine his outlook on life, said 15-year-old Aiden Woodyard, who played on the soccer team with Jakob.
“He was in hospice and broke his hip, but he still went to graduation and in every single picture you can see him smiling,” he said.
A funeral for Jakob is planned Saturday at Elyria Catholic. Butler said the family prepared for the day by asking the school for permission to have the Mass at the place where Jakob was loved. Bishop Nelson J. Perez of the Diocese of Cleveland granted the request.
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