(NEW YORK) -- Camika Shelby says her son Nigel “never met a stranger."
“He was so full of light, so full of joy,” she said.
She told ABC News that her son loved to entertain and share his bubbly personality with others, going out of his way to uplift them despite the hardship he experienced as a Black, gay kid in Huntsville, Alabama. Shelby says it was no surprise to her when her son "came out."
“Ever since Nigel was born I just–I kinda knew,” she said.
Home was a loving, supportive place for Nigel, but his mother says everything changed once he got to Huntsville High School. There, he faced a very different reality where he was often the target of homophobic harassment that took a great toll on his mental health affecting his usually upbeat demeanor, she said. Shelby said she knew her son was struggling with depression and anxiety, but at the time was unaware that Nigel was being bullied.
Nigel began seeing a therapist and was eventually prescribed medication, Shelby said.
“We were dealing with it the best way we knew how,” she said.
Unfortunately, however, the pressure to be “normal” became too much for him to bear. On April 18, 2019, Nigel died by suicide. He was only 15 yearsold.
A photo of Nigel smiling in a rainbow hoodie went viral after his death, becoming a symbol of the late teen.
“Everybody recognizes this picture but not a lot of people know the story behind the hoodie that he had on,” Shelby said.
She was out shopping for Christmas presents with a friend who suggested she buy it for Nigel. It was the last gift he opened on his last Christmas.
“When he opened it, he just dropped it and ran. He hugged me so tight,” she said. “I’ll never forget him telling me that this was the best Christmas present. I guess it was a symbol to him that okay, my mama really does accept me.”
“So where other people just see a picture, that picture has so much more meaning to me,” she added.
Shelby believes that the bullying, depression, and anxiety all contributed to Nigel’s eventual suicide. She and Nigel’s father Patrick Cruz have since filed a civil action lawsuit against the Huntsville City Board of Education for “deliberate indifference to student-on-student sex-based harassment” and their role in facilitating lead administrator for the freshman class, Jo Stafford’s, alleged negligence. Stafford is also named as a defendant in the suit for her failure to use her “power and authority to remediate the harassment” Nigel was subjected to, even after Nigel and his classmates sought help several times.
“Our district continues to mourn the passing of Nigel Shelby, a freshman who tragically died by suicide at his home after school in 2019," Huntsville City Schools said in a statement to ABC News.
Watch the ABC News “Soul of a Nation” special “PRIDE: To Be Seen,” on Thursday, June 9, at 8 p.m. ET
"While HCS typically does not discuss active litigation, we encourage students to utilize the district's longstanding resources in place to promote the social emotional needs of students. Pillar 2 of our strategic plan is dedicated to supporting these needs by providing social workers, licensed mental health professionals, and professional development for school staff. Additionally, Huntsville High has a strong Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) which reinforces a positive culture for LGBTQ+ youth,” the statement continued.
Nigel, who would have graduated this year, was recognized during Huntsville High’s class of 2022 commencement exercises.
Shelby says it’s not easy, but she is “holding on” as she navigates the struggle of losing her only child.
“I’m doing everything I can to keep my head above the water,” she said. “It’s a struggle with learning how to live without him when for 15 years he was my purpose. For 15 years, he was my motivation. And within a blink of an eye, he was just gone."
Shelby says she’s also met with therapists and grief counselors in the time since Nigel’s passing, but it is her faith in God, and Nigel, that continues to motivate her most.
“I’m not sure if it’s God talking to me or if it’s Nigel but somebody is telling me ‘don’t give up and keep going,'" she said.
This is the message she shares with the parents and LGBTQ+ identifying youth that she meets as she advocates for mental health awareness, suicide awareness, and LGBTQ+ rights. Now, her purpose is “saving the next Nigel,” she said. She is dedicated to sharing Nigel’s story to help grieving parents and let others know that they do have a safe space to be themselves.
“I’ll never stop loving him, I'll never stop supporting him, I'll never stop saying his name,” she said.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.