Family of teen missing in Lake Michigan planning scholarship to honor his final, selfless act

  • Matthew "Mateo" Garcia, pictured here at his eighth-grade graduation at age 14, went missing in Lake Michigan last month after jumping in to try to save a friend who'd fallen in.

    Matthew "Mateo" Garcia, pictured here at his eighth-grade graduation at age 14, went missing in Lake Michigan last month after jumping in to try to save a friend who'd fallen in. Courtesy of Susan Medina

Updated 2/4/2019 11:20 PM

Matthew "Mateo" Garcia jumped into a frigid Lake Michigan last month to help a friend who'd fallen in and hasn't been seen since.

To keep alive memories of the 16-year-old Grayslake North High School student and honor his final, selfless act, Matthew's family is raising money for a new scholarship in his name.


"We want to make sure that it doesn't go forgotten, that his name lives on," said Matthew's mother, Susan Medina of Grayslake.

Mateo was walking near the Stiner Pavillion at the Waukegan Municipal Beach with two of his friends on Jan. 18 when one slipped and fell into the freezing water, according to his mother. Mateo jumped in to help while the other friend called 911.

Waukegan police Cmdr. Joe Florip said two police officers who were nearby rushed to the scene and were able to save one of the teens, but they couldn't rescue Mateo.

Susan Medina said there has been an outpouring of support for her family from Mateo's classmates at Grayslake North. Within days they had created a large memorial of roses at his locker, made clothes with his face printed on them, and held a vigil during which they released balloons in his memory.

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"I guess parents really don't know what relationships their kids have with their classmates," Medina said.

One of the phrases she's heard his classmates repeat since Mateo disappeared is "if my friends are happy, I'm happy."

"I asked them what that's about, and they said Matt would say that a lot," Medina said. "I didn't know he said that."

Superintendent Mikkel Storaasli said the Grayslake High School District 127 community feels for Matthew's family and friends.

"What struck me was how many times I saw students supporting each other," Storaasli said. "It doesn't really surprise me because kids are amazing."

The Waukegan Fire Department has returned to the shoreline daily to assess whether it was safe to search for Mateo's body. Fire Marshal Steve Lenzi said it was too cold to search all last week.


Medina said her family hosted a memorial service Friday in Chicago that drew more than 600 mourners. She was pleased to see Waukegan Fire Chief George Bridges Jr. among them.

"I know they're going to do everything they can," Medina said.

The family's online GoFundMe fundraiser for the scholarship has raised nearly $10,000 toward a $20,000 goal since Friday. Medina said she intends to work with the school district to establish the scholarship.

"It's very selfless and generous for her to have done in the name of her son," Storaasli said. "We certainly want to encourage people to donate."

Medina said several people suggested she use part of the donated money to help pay her expenses, but she decided that wouldn't be right.

"I want his memory to live on by creating a scholarship that will help others achieve their full potential," Medina wrote on the GoFundMe page.

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