‘Keep the Spark Alive’ — How one family is pushing to get teen suicides in Johnson County down to zero

Nathan and Sylvia Harrell founded Keep the Spark Alive in 2017 after they lost their son to suicide. Since its creation, the foundation helped fund and create several programs to normalize the discussion of suicide and mental health in schools. The organization's goal is to one day have zero teen suicides in Johnson County. Image via Keep the Spark Alive.

Need help? September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and organizations like Keep the Spark Alive are trying to make conversations about mental health and suicide more normal, now and throughout the year.

 

If you or someone you know is in crisis,  call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HELLO to 741741, the Crisis Text Line. Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.

When Nathan and Sylvia Harrell lost their son, Chad, to suicide in 2017, they did not know what to do, but knew they had to do something.

After the incident, their other children created a GoFundMe page to honor Chad’s memory.

“The initial intent was if we could raise a couple thousand dollars, we could create a scholarship for the lacrosse team at Blue Valley North for seniors going to college as a nice way to honor our son,” Nathan Harrell said.

Chad had played lacrosse at the high school, and it was his teammates who put together a vigil for the family the night after he died.

But what started as a small GoFundMe, quickly grew into much more as community members poured their support and funds into the fundraiser.

The backing from their community prompted the Harrells to begin to think bigger, and they created a 501(c)(3) organization, a tax-exempt type of nonprofit, to start the Keep the Spark Alive foundation.

In the five years since, the Harrells and other local community members, have built the foundation into a growing with an even more ambitious goal: zero teen suicides in Johnson County.

Getting ‘comfortable’ with needing help

September marks Suicide Prevention Month, a time in which attention is turned to what many suicide prevention advocates consider a national crisis that too often goes undiscussed.

In 2017 alone, there were more than 6,200 suicide deaths among adolescents and young adults ages 15-24, making it the second-leading cause of death for that age group, according to the United Health Foundation.

“I wish every month was Suicide Prevention Month,” Nathan Harrell said. “The more people start talking about [mental health], the more people become comfortable getting help when they need it.”

The Keep the Spark Alive foundation’s goal of zero teen suicides is a lofty one, Sylvia Harrell admits, but in order for it to happen, mental health challenges that too often lead teens to contemplate suicide need to be talked about more.

When the Harrells’ organization was first started, there was no roadmap on what to do or how the help the problem, so the couple decided to create their own.

Initially, in addition to the the scholarships, the Harrells looked into investing the funds they had raised into the Blue Valley School District, particularly focused on music, a favorite hobby of Chad’s.

After meeting with Joy Ginsburg, the executive director of Blue Valley Education Foundation, the Harrells say they found other ways to use the funds.

“She [Ginsburg] talked about the work they’ve been doing with some programs, like Project Happiness, which teaches elementary school kids coping skills and resilience,” Sylvia said. “And we said we’re on board, we’ll do those, so that was our first entry into the school systems.”

From there, the foundation’s role in the Blue Valley School District took off.

Sources of Strength

With a second wave of funding, Keep the Spark Alive helped create a a local version Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention program that originated in North Dakota in the 1990s.

It’s a peer-led program that aims to train teens and adults in schools on how to identify the signs of someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis or challenge and what to do if that happens.

The program initially started at all the Blue Valley high schools and has since been implemented in the district’s middle schools. It’s now been taken up in other school districts in the Johnson County area.

Through partnering with the Johnson County Mental Health Center, Keep the Spark Alive, along with three other family foundations, have been able to fund Sources of Strength programs in Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Gardner and USD 232 schools.

This year, the foundation is focusing on a pilot program to bring a new version of Sources of Strength to elementary schools throughout the county.

#GiveMe20

The Harrells’ foundation also helped create a program called #GiveMe20.

Sylvia Harrell partnered with family friend BJ Thomas Wilson, who also lost her daughter in 2017 to suicide, to create the program, which is based on the idea that suicide can often be a snap decision some teens make.

“From the time kids think about [committing suicide] to when they act upon it, it’s 20 minutes or less,” Sylvia Harrell said.

#GiveMe20 is a way to combat that statistic. One of the things students who go through the program do is create a box and fill it with 20 mementos that can remind them what they are looking forward to in the future if they happen to be temporarily in a dark place.

The initial launch of the program started with just Blue Valley Middle School eighth graders, but like many of the foundations other work, it has expanded into other grades and schools.

Looking to the future

The Keep the Spark Alive foundation helps run workshops on the topic of suicide, hosts an annual fundraising golf tournament and more.

Just last week, Sylvia Harrell said, she heard of a first-hand account of how their foundation is making a difference.

A local high school student informed a friend about some dark thoughts that student was having. Through the training provided by the foundation’s programs, the friend sought the necessary help and potentially saved the high schooler’s life.

“That is exactly how we want it to work. We want people to talk about it, to reach out for help, to have civic leaders know how to make a wellness check,” Sylvia Harrell said.

Open discussion and training, the Harrells say is the way they will reach their goal of zero teen suicides.

The foundation is not alone in its efforts in Johnson County, either.

Back in 2017, when the popular Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” came out, some Kansas City area school districts say they saw an uptick in teen suicides. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Mental Health concluded that suicide rates among teens aged 10-17 went up nearly 30% in the month after the show’s release.

In order to combat the issue at that time, Johnson County school superintendents got together and created a program called Zero Reason Why, another peer-run program that put suicide prevention efforts in the hands of student leaders, and allowed them to start discussions on the topic with their friends and peers.

Local public health officials have credited that program, in part, with contributing to a drop in teen suicide rates in Johnson County last year, even as worries over teens’ mental health became more prominent amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s all about keeping those programs in the schools, and establishing a conversation at community level around getting rid of the stigma associated with mental health and suicide,” Nathan Harrell said.