- courtesy of Afterglow
- AJ Holzscheiter
John Holzscheiter and Andrea Wells founded Afterglow to raise suicide awareness after their 18-year-old son AJ died of suicide in November 2018.
"AJ was a phenomenal athlete," Holzscheiter said of his son, who played soccer, lacrosse and had a special passion for alpine skiing. "But in the last few years, he had to deal with some really serious injuries that impacted everything, from sports to his social life."
AJ had suffered multiple injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee, leading to years of rehab. That time on the sidelines was particularly tough on the young athlete, who wasn't sure he'd ever be able to ski again.
"Skiing, and just being active in general, was everything to AJ," Wells said by phone. "Every time his body failed him, it broke his heart."
Throwing himself into physical rehabilitation, AJ worked hard his sophomore and junior year of high school to get back on the ski slopes. Finally, after a big snowstorm in late November 2018, he was ready to make a long-awaited return to skiing.
- courtesy of Afterglow
- AJ Holzcheiter
Unbeknownst to his parents, AJ had seriously reinjured himself that day in gym class after falling on his knees while playing broomball. Though he never told them, Holzscheiter believes his son knew immediately that he had torn his ACL for a third time.
AJ took his life that night.
In the wake of their son's suicide, Holzscheiter and Wells wanted to find a way to not only celebrate AJ's memory but also raise awareness of suicide.
"We certainly weren't experts on the subject," Wells said. "Most people don't talk or think about suicide until it impacts their lives. Especially with young men."
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, in 2021, males were nearly four times as likely to take their own lives than females. Almost 50,000 people died by suicide in 2021, making it the 11th leading cause of death in America. That same year saw an estimated 1.7 million suicide attempts.
"It's a tough subject to broach, but it's so important [that] we teach people to talk about it, especially with their children," Holzscheiter said.
With that goal in mind, they launched the Afterglow music festival in 2019.
"AJ was always the DJ," his father explained. "Music meant a lot to him, so it felt right to celebrate him with a music festival."
- courtesy of artist ©️ Seven Days
- Troy Millette
"It's special that we hold it at Hard'ack,"Wells added. AJ spent a lot of time at the St. Albans recreation area, which includes a small ski hill. The festival has been held there every year of its existence. "And to do it so close to AJ's birthday makes it perfect," Wells said.
Afterglow is also a nonprofit foundation that partners with Northwestern Counseling & Support Systems and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both organizations will be at the festival with informational booths and holding talks throughout the afternoon.
"It's always tough this time of the year when we get near AJ's birthday," Wells said. "And putting the festival together is a lot of work for all of us. But it's just so rewarding to be able to remember him in this special way and to get a really, really important discussion going."
For tickets and more information, visit afterglowfoundation.com.