Forefront staff and volunteers took suicide prevention education on the road this Labor Day weekend. They engaged hundreds of Washington residents in conversation, sweeping out the myths of suicide and introducing up-to-date knowledge and messages of hope.
Ten miles south of Mount Rainier National Park, the normally quiet town of Packwood was jammed with thousands of visitors who came to enjoy the annual Labor Day Flea Market. Forefront volunteers chatted with parents, grandparents, teens, veterans, law enforcement officers, teachers, holiday-goers. Raffling a gun safe turned out to be a smart way to engage the mostly rural crowd. The gun safe itself sat in front of the Packwood Fire Station. Volunteers sold 560 tickets, each one facilitating a one-on-one conversation about suicide prevention. Many more individuals pulled small donations from their wallets and walked away with a bit of knowledge about how to help save a life.
In two days, these efforts raised $3,274. The money will benefit suicide prevention work in the White Pass School District.
The flea market dominates Packwood’s main drag, a mile-long straight stretch of Highway 12. Vendors’ tents take up every square foot of available space. Traffic crawls. All ages and all walks of life are there, strolling the extra wide shoulders of the highway.
Set up next to the fire station and just off the main drag, was the Safer Homes Suicide Memorial Display with 1,111 headstones representing the Washington death toll for suicide in 2014. The red headstones stood for suicide by firearm, yellow for suffocation and white for poisoning. The display drew many flea market customers to stop and ask questions. With half the headstones in red, it quickly became clear why the Forefront group was raffling the gun safe.
“Wow,” said some. “Holy shit,” said others.
“Can I donate?” asked a red-headed girl. Her chin trembled, and I wondered whom her family had lost to suicide. But this tender-hearted child was simply moved by the powerful memorial display. She gave $5 for the cause. “I just want to help,” she said. She and her grandmother came over for the day from Yakima. We talked about other ways she could help to make a difference. Her grandmother offered to accompany her on the annual Out of the Darkness Walk in their community.
Some seniors walked past the Forefront booth, then retraced their steps, small bills folded in their hands. A trio of young men coveting the gun safe bought handfuls of tickets. A mom emptied her change purse into the jar. Couples stopped and told of how suicide had touched their families. A group of Latino teens leaned on the chain link fence and translated the suicide statistics for each other.
With each conversation, we spoke of reasons for hope, of the growing understanding that we can identify many of those at risk for suicide in time to get them to help.
This event — and the suicide prevention training that will take place later this year in the White Pass schools —represents a tragic story come full circle for Forefront community organizers Debbie Reisert and her daughter Melissa Fisher. Debbie’s grandson — Melissa’s nephew —died by suicide after finding an unsecured firearm in a neighbor’s trailer. Brian Stephens was just 16 years old.
Debbie poured long hours into the advance work, seeking donations from Packwood merchants to purchase the gun safe at cost and involving the firefighters, the school district, the Packwood Library and the Highway Shopper.
Melissa spoke of her anger toward school officials who were aware of Brian’s suicidality but failed to tell the family. Increasingly, though, Melissa sees her own focus shifting away from the existing gaps in services. “Instead of blaming others, we need to be coming together as a community — recognizing the problems and working on solutions. Taking the blame out of it, and bringing in the hope.”
The truth is that we have every reason for hope. Up-to-date education gives counselors, teachers and parents, bosses, firefighters and friends valuable skills that can help to save lives. We can all spread the word about keeping firearms and pharmaceuticals locked up and safe. Each of us has a role to play in suicide prevention.
On Sunday afternoon, the gun safe was loaded up and bound for Wenatchee, where the lucky winner was giving it to his brother and family. Meanwhile members of the Forefront family dismantled the memorial display. With 1,111 mock headstones, this is no small feat.
“Hey Jenn,” Melissa said, “We need to see our suicide numbers go down, so that each year this display gets smaller and smaller.”
Thank you to these Packwood supporters
Packwood merchants and organizations who supported the event include the following: ACE Hardware, Arrow Lumber, Blanton’s Market, Blue Spruce Saloon, Chevron-Randle, Hampton Lumber Mills, Highway Shopper, Hotel Packwood, Mountain Goat Coffee Co., TMC Vacation Rentals, Mountain View Lodge, Packwood Spirits, Timberland Library, Westside Ditching, and White Pass High School.