The year was 1971. The suicide rate in Nome, Alaska was forty-four times national average. The most at risk were young people from thirteen to nineteen.
I was twenty, had just moved to Alaska, and was walking home when a car ran off the road almost hitting me, causing me to dive into the bushes. When I picked myself up, Jim, a young Jesuit priest rushed over to me and apologized. He looked exhausted, almost ready to fall over. He let me know he’d been helping a group of community members in Nome deal with a recent rash of suicides.
I invited Jim home for dinner, and he told me about Nome’s many teen suicides. He learned I was a high school dropout who’d briefly lived on Chicago’s streets and managed to put myself through college, earning a B.A. and an M.A.T. in three and a half years.
A week later, community members in Nome asked me to come up and run their newly formed suicide prevention center. I said I didn’t know enough to be the director but could serve as a counselor. After the first two directors didn’t work out, I took over as executive director of Kuyana House (it means “thank you” in Inupiat).
The need was great and after months of working eighty hours weekly, I hired seven teens as peer counselors-in-training. Although the teens I chose were leaders in their peer groups, most of them had severe alcohol and drug abuse problems. One had attempted suicide; all had friends or family members who’d killed themselves. When the high school principal called me and asked that I deliver a document to the school, I said I’d send it over with one of my best counselors. When I named the peer, the principal said he couldn’t accept that young man onto school grounds as he’d been expelled. I gave him another name and heard the same story.
I used everything I knew to train the peers for three hours a day, six days a week for three weeks. After that, we opened the Center doors and reduced the training schedule to an hour a day. Eighty young people a night gathered at the Center. The music was loud and while we didn’t let drugs into the building, we did let in drunk, stoned or “wasted” young people. One night I took a loaded gun away from an angry teen before he could shoot another. We had a honey bucket on the front porch and my first duty every morning was to dump in the sewage receptacle behind our building. But magic was happening. There were no suicides in Nome. My peer counselors were everywhere, part of the action.
I wrote grants, spoke before the State Legislature, and we secured state and federal funding. More teens, including those without deep, hidden issues, joined forces with us to stamp out suicide.The peer counselors turned their and their peers’ lives around, graduated high school, and got jobs or went off to college. We kept suicide out of Nome for the three years I worked at and ran the Center. The peers moved on to other jobs; one managed the town pharmacy, another moved into a coordinator and then director of a human services agency and another went to Stanford and then secured a significant job at an oil company.
I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in Alaska, developed training programs for training peer counselor and community members to combat suicide and alcohol and drug abuse and took a state of Alaska position in which I trained counselors and managers at all the federally or state-funded alcohol drug abuse centers in Alaska.
In 1978 I started my own training and consulting business to train peer counselors and community members throughout Alaska to combat suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse. My business transformed into a nationally respected management consulting firm specializing in training, human resources, and organizational strategy. Despite later success, one of the areas of work I feel most proud of was those early years of helping end, at least for three years, suicide’s reign among Nome’s teens.
photo courtesy of Cheryl Bostrom, https://cherylbostrom.com