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Brainerd man's zest for life remembered

There are sometimes people who touch the lives of nearly everyone they encounter. Based on the outpouring on social media and firsthand accounts, Justin DeChantal was one of those special people, someone who cared deeply for others and made frien...

Justin DeChantal and his mother Sheila pose after participating in The Color Run.
Justin DeChantal and his mother Sheila pose after participating in The Color Run.

There are sometimes people who touch the lives of nearly everyone they encounter.

Based on the outpouring on social media and firsthand accounts, Justin DeChantal was one of those special people, someone who cared deeply for others and made friends wherever he went.

The 2008 Brainerd High School graduate died early Saturday morning from injuries after his car crashed into a tree in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. The 24-year-old son of Al and Sheila DeChantal of Brainerd was a recent college graduate in graphic design who traveled to Honduras numerous times on mission trips.

"He had a way to draw people together," Sheila said. "It's a huge loss, even beyond the loss. I think it's a loss to people."

Sheila said she was very close with her son and knew he had many friends, but even she cannot believe the number of people reaching out to her, changing their profile pictures to photos of Justin and memorializing their "best friend." A few of his closest friends are helping her prepare for his funeral Saturday.

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"This isn't your typical goodbye. Because he just celebrated life so much, it's got to be that way," Sheila said. "So I'm just using the term that we're 'Justin-izing' things. We've got to put him into this, because of who he was."

One of the things that defined Justin was his passion for traveling to Honduras to work with Project Manuelito, a ministry aimed at assisting homeless children with getting off the streets.

Tim Lake has led 14 mission trips to the country through The Journey North Community Church. Seven of those times, nearly every year since he was a high school senior, Justin went along.

"Justin was an incredible asset to the team," Tim wrote in an email. "We were often complimented by the missionaries that our teams were some of the best. That is in large part because Justin was on those teams. ... I always tell the groups that we are a work team, but the most important thing we do down there is build relationships. This is where Justin excelled in every aspect of life."

So dedicated was he to the project and the children, Tim said, he tattooed a map of Honduras and the word 'Manuelito' on his wrist. Sheila said he just returned from his seventh trip a few weeks ago. When he left for the trip he expected it to be his last, but when he returned, he told his mother he'd already signed up for another year.

"He said, 'I can't give it up, I just love those kids,'" Sheila said. "He just had an amazing heart for it."

Tim said the project has sustained a huge loss with the death of Justin, but the loss was a personal one for him, too.

"He was like a son to me and I will miss him so much," Tim wrote. "He will be one of the first people I search for in heaven. His family, friends and a special project in Honduras have suffered an overwhelming blow, but there is hope that we will meet again."

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Justin had aspirations to move out of state and become a graphic designer. He did freelance design projects while working as a supervisor and bartender at Sweet Pea's Public House in St. Paul. At one time, he aspired to become a journalist, which he told the Brainerd Dispatch in 2008 when he was named Fine Arts Student of the Week.

He utilized both his writing and design skills as the editor-in-chief of the Fifth Street Journal, the Brainerd High School newspaper. English teacher Wendy Vandeputte was his adviser, speaking highly of him then and remembering his fun-loving spirit and kind-heartedness now.

"I had such vivid memories of that year. We would stay late many nights to finish each of the monthly issues, but Justin brought that production lab to life," Wendy wrote by email. "There was never a dull moment; he had a way of making us all laugh while maintaining a sense of duty and professionalism."

Wendy said Justin maintained contact with her after graduating, sending her emails, handwritten letters and Facebook messages about his mission trips or reminders of what he loved about her classes. He also reached out to her when she dealt with sad events in her own life.

"Truly, he has been a reminder of why I became a teacher," Wendy wrote. "He became more than 'former student' - he became 'friend.' I will miss Justin and, without a doubt, remember him forever."

As for Sheila, Al and their older son, Brad, Sheila said they miss him so much already but are determined to keep his memory alive. He always encouraged her to overcome her hesitance and to live life to the fullest, she said.

"Whenever I thought whatever I was doing was crazy, like, 'Oh, I shouldn't do that,' Justin would be like, 'Mom that's so cool, do it,'" Sheila said. "Then, I would. I lost my cheerleader."

Although right now Sheila said her inclination is to quit doing some of the things she enjoys, she is trying to remember that isn't what Justin would have wanted. She and his friends are already discussing how they will celebrate his May 2 birthday, and Sheila will participate in The Color Run 5K this July in the Twin Cities on a team organized by Justin.

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"As everyone keeps trying to remind me, he'd want you to go on, and he'd want you and everybody in his life, he'd want them to keep being who they are," Sheila said. "That was kind of his niche."

Funeral services for Justin will be at noon Saturday at the Heritage Assembly of God Church, 13242 Berrywood Drive, Baxter. His family is asking memorials be directed to the Manuelito Project. To donate, visit www.wgm.org/Manuelito-give and put "Justin DeChantal Memorial" in the comments. Checks may be written to WGM (Justin DeChantal Memorial) and mailed to World Gospel Mission, P.O. Box 948, Marion, IN, 48952.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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