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'It was his happy place': Mom writes letter to pizzeria after her son's suicide

This pizza chain is 'shining a light where it's needed most' in honor of one of its biggest fans.
/ Source: TODAY

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

After 15-year-old Isaac Pedley took his own life, his mom Jennifer wrote a letter about his love of a pizzeria that's touching hearts across America — and inspiring others to take action.

Most people would have considered Isaac to be a happy, well-balanced high school freshman, his father, Ken, told TODAY Food. He was an outgoing, accomplished athlete with straight As. He was personable and compassionate — the kind of person who "never met a stranger," said Ken.

In the letter, which was sent to Scott and Ally Svenson, the co-founders of MOD Pizza, in December, Jennifer described how Isaac had first sauntered into the Naperville, Illinois, pizzeria with a group of friends before his freshman year of high school. The MOD Squad (as the restaurant calls its staff) boomed a friendly, "hello," and Isaac was the only one to return the greeting. The store's manager, Eric Kowalski, awarded Isaac's kindness with a free milkshake.

"Not to be cliché, but this really was the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Jennifer wrote.

Isaac Pedley's suicide was an impetus for change.Jennifer Pedley

The Pedleys had moved to Naperville in 2015, and Isaac had a tough time with the transition, Jennifer wrote. He struggled with depression and anxiety, and was able to receive some help. In the Pedley house, discussions about mental illness were never silenced and Isaac spoke often and openly about his depression and anxiety with both his mom (a social worker) and dad (who worked for a time in a psychiatric hospital).

After getting help, Isaac seemed to be doing well, according to this family. He had become an undefeated wrestling champ with straight-As and a bunch of new friends, Jennifer wrote. The friendship with Kowalski and the warmth of the staff at MOD was also a bright spot for Isaac.

However, in the fall of 2016, Isaac's anxiety got worse, though his family noted that he continued doing well in school, participated in activities and still often visited the pizzeria.

But on April 10, 2017, Isaac took his own life.

The Pedley Family.Jennifer Pedley

Isaac was buried in a MOD pizzeria t-shirt — "exactly what he would have wanted," Jennifer wrote. Kowalksi and his staff attended the funeral, hosted its guests at the pizzeria afterwards, named Isaac's favorite pizza "The Isaac," and put Isaac's photo on their mural wall, which Jennifer wrote he was "grinning up in heaven about that."

The Naperville restaurant also held a fundraiser in October following Isaac's death. Kowalski and his team raised $3,800 and donated it to Suicide Prevention Services in Batavia, Illinois.

"Why am I telling you this?" Jennifer wrote in her letter to the Svensons. "I share this with you because I want you to know how important MOD was to our boy, how it was his happy place, a place where he felt loved and accepted without question. A place where when I knew he was there I could exhale knowing he was in a good place."

Isaac at MOD pizzeria.Jennifer Pedley

When the Svensons first read Jennifer's letter in December, they felt a call to action to make MOD such a place for all its workers and customers — for every and any person who may need a lifeline.

"It brought us to our knees," Ally told TODAY Food. "To write a letter to tell us what was good, where there was light, what was positive. That was the part that was such a call to action. This is heartbreaking. What can we do to help?"

The Svensons were notified that the Naperville restaurant held a fundraiser in October, but they did not know the full story until Jennifer wrote to them directly in December. In the months following, the Svensons decided that they wanted to create a much larger campaign to spread awareness about suicide prevention.

In March, a video of Ally reading Jennifer's heart-breaking letter was filmed. It was initially created for MOD's general managers, a MOD spokesperson told TODAY Food, but became integral to the company's mission.

The Svensons called upon the help of The Jed Foundation (JED), which has been working to protect the emotional health of and prevent suicide among teens and youth for 18 years. According to 2016 reports from the the Center for Disease Control, suicide was the second leading cause of death in Americans aged 10 to 35.

The MOD Squad and Pedley Family stand beside Isaac's photo on the mural wall.Jennifer Pedley

"We tend to stereotype that it’s the kid who skulks around the corner of the gymnasium. This could happen to anyone. To any parent. And you think you're doing the right things," Ken told TODAY Food.

He continued, "Suicide was something we talked about with him, in general terms and specific terms. What we didn’t talk about was what do you do in the moment when you're alone … We should have said let's call them now. Let's let them know we might call one day."

In an effort to get those who may be struggling more comfortable with calling a foundation like JED or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, MOD Pizza created its first "Impact Pizza" and is spreading the word about how to talk about suicide.

MOD Pizza launches campaign for suicide prevention.MOD Pizza

Customers can order "The Isaac" (with olive oil, garlic, ricotta, red onion, roasted grape tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette and basil) at MOD's 350 locations to honor Isaac and help combat teen suicide now through Oct. 1. During this time, MOD is connecting all of its employees, customers and local communities to JED's programs and initiatives. The information is written on MOD's napkin holders and community boards in bright orange.

"It was Isaac's favorite color," Ally told TODAY Food. "It sends them right to it."

MOD employees — including Isaac's elder brother, Asher, who joined the Naperville team immediately after his 18th birthday — also wear orange bandanas to honor their biggest fan. When the initiative comes to an end, MOD will donate a minimum of $50,000 to JED.

"When he died, my struggle as a dad was he was 15. What’s his legacy?" Ken told TODAY Food. "Them bringing this back in his honor is a way for me to see a legacy of him now. All we had was photos and trinkets to grieve. For him to, sadly from my point of my view, be an impetus for change in this whole issue is so important."

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Erica Chayes Wida is a New York City-area based journalist and food writer obsessed with culture, poetry and travel. Follow her work on Instagram and Contently.