By Aimee Chou
In a sea of softly lit blue and orange candles, the HUB South Ballroom glowed. More than doubling the scale of Forefront’s inaugural 2013 event, 725 people packed the ballroom to support a cause that grows more visible by the year, and draws more champions to its unwavering light.
After an election season mired by political divisions and gridlock, suicide prevention advocates from all walks of life dined together in a shared determination to fight suicide.
Donations totaled nearly $250,000, and additional gifts continue to arrive for Forefront to define operations goals for 2016-2017. Over the past year, Forefront has taken more steps towards making Washington a model suicide prevention state: Expanding programs into three rural counties, 14 high schools and 13 colleges and universities; providing leadership for the passage of HB 2793, a fifth suicide prevention bill to establish a Suicide Safer Homes Task Force; presenting two Suicide Prevention in Higher Education conferences; training approximately 2,000 individuals, and more.
Powerful speeches reflected the evening’s theme of “A Place for Everyone”
- Washington State First Lady Trudi Inslee told the true story of Brennen Smith, who died by suicide after he was able to acquire a pawn shop shotgun in five minutes, during a 29-day waiting period to see a mental health counselor. Thunderous applause rippled at the mention of Governor Jay Inslee signing an Executive Order earlier this year to launch and steer Washington’s Suicide Prevention Action Alliance. “We’re now working with gun ranges and dealers, working with mental health providers, working across systems, and with schools,” said Trudi Inslee of the comprehensive approach Washington State is taking. “I’m impressed by all the dedicated people who are leading the path forward.”
- Forefront community organizer and API Mental Health & Wellness Summit co-founder Brandon Hadi (UW 16’) spoke of feeling “numb, angry, guilty” after losing his friend to suicide 17 months ago – a turning point that changed a life course initially based on parental expectations, towards becoming a mental health counselor and advocate of healing “broken spirits the same way we mend a broken arm.” He urged the audience to sign up for L.E.A.R.N. training to identify warning signs and intervene – “It’s worth every second of your time.” Over 250 signed up by the evening’s end, with a request for training at the Governor’s office and cabinet also underway.
- Contrasting the hushed stigma of suicide against the highly visible, outspoken breast cancer campaign, radio talk show host Bill Radke spoke of losing his brother Brooks to suicide: “He died alone – he thought he was alone. My brother told himself a story that took over, a story about his worth. I have a microphone, and a new story of hope,” Radke said, adding that journalism needs to be part of the solution: “We’re invigorated by new ideas, but don’t want to talk about suicide.”
Emcees Tracy Taylor of KING 5 and Entertainment Correspondent Scott Carty infused their own stories of suicide loss: “We’re here tonight to build strong suicide prevention communities,” said Taylor, who is in her fourth year as a Forefront emcee.
Expanding on the theme that everyone plays a role in prevention, Forefront executive director Jennifer Stuber urged the audience to integrate the L.E.A.R.N. system into their daily lives, making it “as well-known and practiced as C.P.R. and the Heimlich maneuver.”
Ethan Deutsch riveted the crowd with a flamenco guitar performance in memory of his son Jan, who died by suicide; and lyrics from an original collaboration by Sam Foster and rapper One2 literally brought depression out of its silence:
Don’t speak softly
Keep on breathing
Let your innermost be spoken
Cry and scream it
There wasn’t a dry eye during a viewing of “Full Circle,” a short film about the family of river-jumping, book-loving, prankster teen Brian Stephens, who died by suicide in 2009 with an unsecured firearm.
His grandmother, community organizer Debbie Reisert, received a standing ovation as she came to the podium: “Seven years ago, I could never even have imagined this day. This work is hard – it requires a lot of partnership. I was lucky I had Forefront’s support to come together, and collaborate to find solutions.”
When her journey in advocacy brought her to Olympia to testify before the legislature, she said “For the first time, Brian had a voice. The best moment is when I found out that Forefront will train the school that my grandson went to.”
Indeed, Brian’s hometown of Packwood has come full circle: Tomorrow, December 3, Forefront will provide training in the White Pass School District to meet HB 1336’s mandate for specialized training for school staff on recognizing and responding to signs of suicidal ideation.
Award winners honored for diverse roles in suicide prevention
In an award reception before the dinner, Forefront recognized five suicide prevention champions:
- House Speaker Frank Chopp (D – 43rd District) accepted the first-time Legislator of the Year award for winning the support of both sides of the aisle in multiple legislative sessions and heralding bipartisan support for six suicide prevention bills. Chopp, who lost his best friend from high school to suicide, said “For many years, I had questions. For many years, I had no answers. Many people helped the legislature make the right decisions.” He credited the collaborative spirit of Forefront’s team, Rep. Tina Orwall, as well as Joe Fain and Brian Blake.
- Rep. Tina Orwall (D – 33rd District) presented the eponymous Tina Orwall Public Service Award to Debbie Reisert, praising Reisert’s determination to “shine a spotlight on this problem in our society” by activating her community in Packwood and Greater Lewis County.
- “For many years we talked about (high rates of rural suicides),” said Rep. Brian Blake (D – Aberdeen), who received Special Recognition along with Sen. Joe Fain (R – Auburn). “But this conversation was different. We worked together. We are losing too many people still. We have work to do – let’s work together.”
- Deborah Horne accepted the Excellence in Coverage of Mental Health & Suicide Award for a KIRO News series of segments on suicide, which include Monique Ming Laven’s Pushing for change, and Michelle Millman’s interview with Jennifer Stuber about Safer Homes bill and suicide myths. Sharing the emotional intensity of spending all day in Olympia to cover Suicide prevention creates mock cemetery on Capitol’s lawn, Horne said she’s driven to “spread the message of hope and the message that the end of one’s life can affect people.”
- Dr. Kate Comtois of UW accepted the Sue Eastgard Training Award for her devotion to high quality suicide prevention training in Collaborative Assessment and Management for Suicidality (CAMS) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), thanking Forefront for “promoting suicide prevention awareness – all over the country, you have a big impact.”
- Accepting the first-time Emerging Leader Award, Micia Vergara (UW ’17) spoke of discovering her passion for “breaking down the stigma of suicide” after moving to Seattle and taking helm as last year’s president of the Husky Suicide Prevention and Awareness – a role in which she was known for bringing in therapy dogs, distributing thousands of stress reduction bags, and managing a 700-person Husky Help & Hope (H3) walk.
Sponsors, donors, and volunteers gave generously
Tuxedoes and Tennis Shoes catering provided a seamless dining experience for Forefront’s first year at a sit-down dinner format, with wine, Hilliard’s microbrews, and Caffe Ladro coffee.
The evening was underwritten by generous sponsorship from Nintendo, Delta Dental; DLA Piper, Seattle Children’s, Premera Blue Cross, Facebook, Stritmatter Kessler, Coluccio Law, Washington State Pharmacy Association, UW School of Social Work, University of Washington College of Education, Recovery International, Second Amendment Foundation, Morgan Stanley, UW School of Nursing; Emily Anthony Consulting, The Butterfly Effect, and Pacific Heritage Appraisal.
Matching funds provided a double impact boost on donations exceeding $1,000: The Mark Torrance Foundation, The Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, the Barton Family, the Harry Brown family, Bruce and Barbara Wolff, friends and family of Matt Adler, friends and family of Ethan Smith, and the Forefront board provided a total of $60,000 in matching donations.
Approximately 30 volunteers contributed countless hours with duties such as parking management, flower transport, table set up, and clean-up.
Missed the opportunity to give on Nov. 30? There’s still time to make a fully deductible end-of-year donation here.