The father of 11-year-old Terry Smith Jr. said his son loved picnics and being outdoors. Thursday night he invited the public to a picnic style memorial at Lamb's Fellowship church in Lake Elsinore. With his son's photos and favorite panda, the tribute celebrated the life of Terry Jr., also known as "Juju," and recognized the efforts of everyone who searched for him.
"It's for me to thank everyone who searched for Juju they all have a place in my heart," said Terry Smith Sr.
Hundreds of search volunteers knew Terry Jr. as the missing boy with brown eyes and blue shorts. Their massive search came to a tragic end when his remains were discovered in a shallow grave at his family's home earlier this month in Menifee.
"It's sad. We looked everyday," said 12-year-old volunteer Hannah Berning.
With blisters on her ankles from the search, Danielle McVicker, of Menifee, said "This is kind of our closure ... It's nice Terry Sr. is doing this."
Smith Sr. sold his car to pay for his flght from West Virginia to honor his son and personally hug and shake the hands of the volunteers during the memorial.
"My heart goes out to each and every one of you," he said. "It's for me to thank everyone who became apart of Juju, searched for Juju," he added.
Attendees were asked to wear blue.
"We wear baby blue for Juju … his favorite color that's why," said McVicker.
Smith Sr. said it's been a rollercoaster of emotions as young Terry Jr.'s half brother 16-year-old Skylor Atilano faces murder charges for his death.
"I've never stopped loving him. The Sklor everyone is seeing is not the Skylor I had," said Smith.
As the memorial came to a close, families were asked to love a little more, hug each other tighter and honor the young boy who brought their community together.
"I feel we've lost an amazing soul … but he's looking down on us," said volunteer Michelle Paige, of San Marcos.
Living just down the road from the place Terry Jr. once called home, McVicker said they never knew him, neither will they forget.
"I blow Terry a kiss every time I pass his house," said her 3-year-old daughter Riley.
"She always wants to blow a kiss when we pass by, so we do … It's not going away," said McVicker.
Terry Jr.'s mother Shawna Smith held a private memorial service for her son over the weekend. Volunteers Thursday said they were hurt not being able to attend, but grateful to celebrate with Smith Sr.