Matthews mom continues to ‘Live Life to the Max’ in honor of son killed in crash

Last month, mother Jessica completed a Trailblaze Challenge for Make-A-Wish of Central and Western North Carolina.
Max Shanks was killed in a reported DUI crash last summer.
Max Shanks was killed in a reported DUI crash last summer.(Family photo)
Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 9:49 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MATTHEWS, N.C. (WBTV) - Last July, Jessica Shanks was driving with her family when a man, charged with being under the influence, slammed into her vehicle at roughly 100 miles per hour, investigators said.

Jessica and her younger son, Griffin, survived while her husband, Corey was hospitalized for weeks. The couple’s 7-year-old son, Max, didn’t make it.

Since then, Jessica has tried to create a legacy for her late son by “Living Life to the Max.”

It started with a kid’s coat drive, then a kickball tournament to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. After that came a CLT Bike Camp and a scholarship in honor of Max through the Avondale Children’s Center.

Then, last month, Jessica and a team she formed walked close to 30 miles to complete a Trailblaze Challenge for Make-A-Wish of Central and Western North Carolina. The challenge? A 28.3-mile hike spanning over 12 hours.

In taking on such a feat, Jessica was faced with both physical and mental hurdles throughout.

“We, along with 93 other hikers, set out on May 20 at 5 a.m., putting one foot in front of the other. By mile 20, my body was beginning to wear down. My knees hurt. My mood and optimism were dwindling. I questioned my decision-making. I doubted my abilities and thought about giving up,” Shanks said.

But when at the final aid station at mile 22 along the route, Jessica said she gassed up with PB&Js, bananas, Gatorade, water, new socks, bandages and knee wraps.

Jessica said it was then, she saw the analogy of the volunteers being like a NASCAR pit crew.

”I saw myself at that stop, and began thinking how things can get so hard and scary that you eventually wave your flag, and the pit crew of friends come running with a meal, an ear, or extra hands to release the weight on your shoulders,” she said. “They jump in to help because you cannot stay in that dark place too long. Sitting in the chair, having my knee wrapped, I considered quitting. I wanted to stop, just be done with the whole thing. Much the same as I have often felt in my recent life journey. It would’ve been easy - and acceptable - to jump in the van and leave. But the thought of leaving made me think about my ‘Why?’ And for me, my why is made up of continuing Max’s legacy by helping other children and families build memories and find joy through wishes being granted. But, we’d met our fundraising goal, I thought, so, what was the point of pushing forward through the pain?”

That question spurred Jessica to start a pep talk.

“‘You are going to finish!’ I told myself. ‘You have felt worse pain,’” Shanks recalled.

Jessica says she could feel how making her mind strengthen, made her body more capable.

“After talking to myself, I got out of the chair and for the first time that day, put my earbuds in for musical distraction, then gracefully peg-legged the final 6.3 miles,” she said.

Her husband and family had been tracking her location and hiked in the last half mile to meet her and the team. Not long after that, Jessica says, they could all hear the sweet sound of cowbells at the finish line, indicating the end.

“Seeing the volunteers and realizing we’d completed the entire hike, I was overcome with emotion,” she said. “I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for our team, I was proud of myself for pushing. Mostly though, I missed Max. I thought of all the years I carried Max in my heart, in my belly, on my hip, and how that was followed with a vision of him carrying me down the trail. I know that he did, and I could not have done it without him.”

Jessica Shanks, third from left with walking sticks, honored her late son Max by taking part in...
Jessica Shanks, third from left with walking sticks, honored her late son Max by taking part in a Trailblaze Challenge last month.(Source: Jessica Shanks)

Since then, Jessica says she has thought through what the hike did for her mental health.

“Over the last 11 months, I’ve been told how many times ‘I’m strong,’” she said. “But I don’t feel strong. I feel tired, angry, heartbroken, and weak. Throughout the last several miles I realized I am only as strong as the people surrounding me. I would have never completed that hike without the aid stations, volunteers, and amazing friends that said ‘yes’ to hiking with me. I would not have finished without their support, without them wrapping my knees, or taking my pack the last five miles. I would not have finished without the prayers, encouragement and knowing Griffin was tracking me, and imagining him watching the little dot moving along the trail with pride for his Mama.”

Jessica’s hike with her team “Live Life to the Max” raised a total of $26,000 to give back, but maybe most of all, helped her remember she is strong, and the word “strength” can take on many forms.