In Wisconsin I created a campus/community program called “A Sense of Life,” and as a result, my son took his skills from volunteering over the years with Habitat for Humanity and joined the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe!
I was used to volunteering — writing publicity and articles, serving on a county arts council, planning activities for a University women’s group, choreographing worship services for a church, creating brown bag meetings, and participating in campus ministry. I used my skills, talents and what I learned from other activities to create “A Sense Of Life,” a program to share information with kids about self-esteem issues and suicide prevention.
When my daughter was in junior high, a classmate of hers was depressed and used gasoline and a match. I phoned the district superintendent of schools, whom I had worked with at church, and requested that students be allowed to talk about their feelings. He agreed to let them do that at lunch times, and he said I could attend.
I understood what they were feeling, because a classmate of mine in college, with whom I had done acting and directing scenes, had committed suicide. His action had made me more willing to reach out to others.
Students really listened and they talked to me, partially because I had been through my parents’ divorce when I was about their age. When I was growing up, you never heard much about suicide; however, as I listened to the students, I realized how different things were when I grew up. Students now had a mental “problem-solving” list that included suicide as an option! Administrators, clergy, parents and others said we shouldn’t talk about suicide, because it would give kids ideas. But what if they already have those ideas?
Because I had been blown away and totally unprepared for what students shared with me, it seemed important to raise the “red flag” of danger. So I took two actions: I offered to continue to meet with the students; and I wrote a “Letter to the Editor” pointing out my immediate concerns, requesting that community leaders do something. Then I relaxed, thinking that I had done what was needed.
Attempting to figure out how to respond, I attended several suicide prevention programs, but none of them explored alienation or ways to promote living, as opposed to being “against suicide.” I talked with college students who agreed that both of those ideas were important. I began speaking with other individuals and groups to form a steering committee for “A Sense of Life.” I involved a ministerial association group and someone from the police department. The Chancellor was very supportive.
It was a pleasant surprise to see others to come up with new ideas and projects. The city council approved “A Sense of Life,” and the banner stating “We Care” went up during times of highest risk. We worked on small, innovative projects we could create ourselves, and what funding we had was used for specific projects. Some groups worked together to offer talks, and a donation allowed us to involve community TV. Professors received community credit for presenting talks, which were videotaped and offered to the community on a variety of topics.
Since then, I have offered these ideas to others as I moved around the country, including a group in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a tribal group there, as well. Noted author and transformational leader Jean Houston called “A Sense Of Life” a “simple idea with the possibility of changing the world.”
My son’s volunteering gave him the opportunity to explore a new, different world and learn about its people and their language, as well as the chance to go bungee-jumping near Victoria Falls!
So many issues need new eyes and different ideas. I hope you will choose to explore at least one and make a difference, too.
Note: I invite you to join me in honoring the International Day of Peace on September 21. Cities and communities throughout the U.S. and world are choosing to make it a special day. Make September 21st a special day in your neighborhood!