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Island teen works to create suicide intervention and youth support group
By SARAH LOW
Following a number of youth suicides and deaths on Vashon, island teen Garnet Burk has partnered with Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) to create the Suicide Hope Initiative (SHIne), a group whose focus is to heal, educate and support the youth of Vashon.
“I was already struggling with my brother’s death. Then there were the other deaths and suicides that have just crushed the community,” Burk said, “I felt crushed too, but I also wanted to be proactive.”
SHIne’s first public event, an open mic night, will take place on Saturday at the Presbyterian church.
Burk, 17, a senior at Annie Wright School in Tacoma, lost her brother Palmer to suicide last fall. She decided to start the project about six weeks ago after the island’s most recent suicide of a young adult. She explained that many young people she knows are in pain, both from recent losses of friends and loved ones and from their own personal struggles, and she felt she needed to act.
“Nothing hurts more than seeing kids in all this pain,” she said. “They need guidance to get through and deal with it. I know kids that feel suicidal, and I’m done not doing anything about it.”
So Burk reached out to her friends, as well as Yvonne Zick, a parent educator and community coordinator at VYFS, to organize a group and weekly meetings.
Zick said she was impressed with Burk’s initiative.
“Garnet talked about an organization she wanted to build,” Zick said. “She’d done a lot of research about the ‘suicide brain’ and what happens on a physiologic level, and she wanted to share this information, the things she’s learned.”
Burk said the group’s focus will be awareness, and there will be an emphasis on science.
“We need to educate, teach people the signs to watch for and empower kids to become life savers,” she said.
Vashon Fire & Rescue (VIFR) chief Hank Lipe, who has participated in the group, said he agrees.
“This needs to be an issue that the community embraces through support and education,” he said. “It’s time to step up and make a difference.”
Lipe, one of the community leaders Zick contacted to attend a round-table meeting as the group was coming together, said he’s seen too much youth suicide in his years as a first responder. He said Vashon is the second community he has worked in that has experienced multiple youth suicides and deaths.
“It becomes epidemic almost, even though they’re not connected,” he said. “When it starts, you don’t know when it’s going to stop. It’s a dangerous atmosphere.”
The only thing that made a difference in the other place he worked, Lipe said, was when the community actively came together to support its youth.
Support, according to both Lipe and Zick, is where the adults of the community are needed. Lipe notes that the project and his involvement has the full backing of the VIFR commissioners, and Zick points to community partners such as Minglement and the Presbyterian church, who have been generous in donating space for the group’s meetings and coming event.
“As a community we need to gather the resources our kids need, whatever they are, and make sure that they’re available for future generations as well,” Lipe said.
With awareness of the group spreading primarily by word-of-mouth, Zick said that the group includes people who have lost someone close to them, are feeling suicidal themselves and some who just want to help.
“Everyone has ideas. My job is to organize them,” she explained. “There’s no one way to do this; healing is different for everyone. I’d like to see as many options as there are needs.”
Burk herself has found healing through art, poetry and music, which was the inspiration for the group’s inaugural public event — an open mic evening.
“We came up with the name SHIne because my brother was a real Pink Floyd enthusiast; he loved their song ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond,’” Burk said. “All young people should have a chance to shine. This is a chance for kids to stand up and just say what’s in their hearts.”
For Lipe, who has attended all but one of the group’s meetings, the significance of the project and its goals is clear.
“I feel strongly as a parent, leader and part of this community that as adults we have to embrace this,” he said. “If at the end of the day, I can say ‘Yeah, I made a difference,’ then I don’t think there’s any better achievement.”
For her part, Zick said her goal for the project is simple.
“I would love to be overwhelmed by kids telling me what they need, so that no one else has to die, so they know that we care,” she said.
Burk’s vision for this new effort is to the point and straight from the heart.
“This is about education. We need to focus on science and not the assumptions people make,” she said. “I want everyone to recognize the signs and to prevent suicides. It’s about healing. Life is beautiful. We need to live on.”
SHIne meets at 4 p.m. Fridays at Minglement. All are welcome, but adults 25 years or older are asked to contact Yvonne Zick at VYFS if they plan to attend.
The group will host an open mic at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Presbyterian church for healing and expression and will include acoustic music, poetry and spoken words. The cost is free for those 24 and under, $10 for 25 and up, with all proceeds going to the SHIne Foundation through VYFS. To perform or participate, call Garnet Burk at 353-4907 or email EveryoneShineOn@gmail.com.