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Think Too Much: Communities rise to fight youth suicide

Think Too Much: Communities rise to fight youth suicide

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South Albany High School's "Sources of Strength" club was the first in Oregon. Now, a grant will allow the suicide-prevention program to begin in Corvallis schools. 

Here's a welcome change: There is good news to report about efforts to combat youth suicide in our schools.

It's a story that begins in tragedy. But a family's efforts to prevent similar tragedies could end up making a big difference.

Here's the lead: Thanks to $25,000 in donations, the Corvallis School District will be able to begin rolling out the Sources of Strength suicide-prevention program at its two high schools. The program, first developed in 1998, seeks to tap into the power of social networks, using peer-to-peer messages to strengthen connections and safety nets. The idea is to prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse by making sure adolescents know they have multiple sources of support and protective factors to rely on when times get hard.

South Albany High School started to use the program in the fall of 2016; it was the first school in Oregon to do so.

More than half of the money to bring the program to Corvallis came from a fund established after the 2016 suicide of Seniu Maitland, a 18-year-old student at Crescent Valley High School. The Maitland family set up Seniu's Foundation Fund through the Benton Community Foundation. Since then, the Maitland family — and, in particular, Seniu's mother Joyce — has been active in efforts to combat youth suicide. (It's a big problem: Suicide has claimed more than 90 Oregonians aged 10-24 over each of the last three years.)

Joyce Maitland was working with Chris Quaka, the president and CEO of the Benton Community Foundation, to identify possible recipients for some of the money from Seniu's fund. At the same time, Liv Gifford, the executive director of the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation, had been looking for programs that offered, in her words, "a greater coordinated approach to suicide prevention. Sources of Strength rose to the top as a great choice."

Give Gifford and other Corvallis school officials credit for choosing Sources of Strength instead of deciding to reinvent the wheel; the district has sometimes in the past been sluggish to adopt worthwhile programs created elsewhere.

But that still left the question of how to raise the necessary funds to get the program going in Corvallis.

Enter Maitland and Quaka. The Community Foundation, using $13,000 from Seniu's fund, was able to use other available money to leverage the amount to $15,000. The Mullins Charitable Fund, started by former Samaritan Health Services CEO Larry Mullins and his wife, Barbara, added a $10,000 donation. The end result: a $25,000 gift that will allow a two-year rollout of Sources of Strength to Crescent Valley and Corvallis high schools.

The cash will allow training for lead coordinators at each high school; those coordinators then can begin training the students who will be involved in the program. Although details are still being worked out, Gifford said the hope is to expand the program into the district's middle schools as quickly as possible.

Gifford said the grant is particularly valuable in that it bankrolls the luxury of a two-year rollout.  

"It's just incredible that the partnerships came through at the same time that the need for this program was crystallizing," she said.

For Quaka, who would like to increase the visibility of the Benton Community Foundation (which has been doing good work throughout Benton County now for 65 years), the Sources of Strength grant hits a sweet spot: "This was unique," he said in an interview last week, "how we were able to fund it." And, he said, the foundation relishes the chance to get involved with a project on the ground floor.

Earlier, in a press release announcing the grant, Quaka elaborated on some of the reasons why the program was so attractive to the foundation: "This grant is about making sure no one is left out. Teachers are connecting with kids, but the kids are also taking care of each other. That's the kind of community we want, where everyone is part of the solution and everyone is involved."

And for Joyce Maitland, that's the critical key: "A lot of the kids who are going through mental health crises, they feel alone," she said. The Sources of Strength program emphasizes building connections that can help to strip away that isolation — and the stigma that sometimes accompanies mental health issues.

Best of all, she said, the program is built on a foundation of community — and the issue of youth suicide is one that requires community involvement.

"We need to get the community involved in mental health, and those people who need our help," she said.

The Benton Community Foundation continues to accept donations for Seniu's Memorial Fund. Call 541-753-1603 or go to the website (mm)

Mike McInally is editor of the Democrat-Herald and the Gazette-Times. He can be contacted at Full disclosure: His wife, Diane, does contract accounting work for the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation. 


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