Vashon leaders, stunned by the recent death of a 2010 Vashon High School graduate, the fourth such tragedy in recent months, have organized an event they say they hope will help the community heal.
The event, “Gathering as a Community to Heal from Tragedy,” will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Chautauqua Elementary School. It is being put on by Vashon Youth & Family Services and the Vashon Island School District.
“I think we’re in a very tender situation emotionally, and I think there’s a lot of emotional fragility here,” said Superintendent Michael Soltman. “I think that this pattern could potentially continue unless we act to do something different. ... That’s why I’m so committed to doing this right away.”
Many islanders were shocked last week to learn of the death of 20-year-old Samantha Burkart, the fourth death of an islander in his or her teens or 20s in a little over six months.
Search and rescue officials discovered Burkart’s body near a trail on the Burton Peninsula last Wednesday, said Sgt. Cindi West, a spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff’s Office. Burkart was last seen on Thursday, May 2, and reported missing on the following Saturday. Family discovered her car parked at Jensen Point last Wednesday, prompting a quick search and rescue operation by Vashon’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and King County Search and Rescue.
West said foul play is not suspected in Burkart’s death, which many are calling an apparent suicide. An official cause of death, she said, will not be released until the King County Medical Examiner’s Office completes a toxicology report. A representative of the office said on Friday that the toxicology report would take up to 10 weeks.
Burkart, the daughter of Timothy Burkart and Rosalie Bonelli, was born and raised on Vashon. On Friday family members released a statement that said the young woman had several talents and a good sense of humor. She liked to draw, they said, was published in a teen magazine and was an avid Scrabble player.
“Alas, despite her many talents, she suffered from depression and low self-esteem that became more pronounced as she became older,” the statement said. “The family hopes that Sam’s passing will encourage others who suffer from mental illness to seek early treatment.”
The family added that Burkart apparently died in a place she loved.
“Finally, Sam loved Vashon Island and she died near the trails that she and her family would often walk when she was a child.”
Soltman said many VHS staff members knew Burkart, and students and staff are also still grieving the recent deaths of high school students Palmerston Burk and Ryan Krug. Burk, a freshman, committed suicide last October, and Krug, a junior, died in a car accident in January.
Last November, another young islander, India Castle, was also found dead after being reported missing for several days. The sheriff’s office later said Castle, 27 and a graduate of VHS, died from an accidental drug overdose and exposure.
“In some respect, the high school and the school district is in shock and has been for several months, and that shock lies right under the surface of our school community,” Soltman said. “We create as much normalcy as possible, but I think at the risk of covering up feelings, emotions and concerns that need to be dealt with for us to move forward.”
Soltman said he’d already been working with VYFS officials to put on a community event on grief and healing, and when they learned of Burkart’s death last week, they decided to move quickly.
“What we’re doing now is not effective at meeting the needs of kids who are dealing with these tragedies,” Soltman said, adding that he wanted to help both students and adults with their grief and work to prevent youth suicide.
“It’s to open up a dialogue that creates understanding and support between parents and students and the community, so we can be closer together and prevent these tragedies in the future,” he said.
The meeting will be facilitated by Michael Meade, an islander who travels the world to offer community-building programs and help communities with similar tragedies through his organization, the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation.
Yvonne-Monique Zick, who heads VYFS’s community and parent education and is organizing the event, said she felt fortunate that Meade, who travels frequently, could be at the meeting on short notice.
“He’s an expert in healing communities,” she said. “This is his community, and he feels strongly about being able to be of service to us in this way.”
Since Burk’s and Krug’s deaths, counselors with VYFS have been present in Vashon schools and have held support groups to for students and staff members. The organization has also put on several educational meetings for parents on youth suicide prevention.
Zick said she thought VYFS has provided plenty of resources and support, but she believes that many are still in pain from recent tragedies and are having trouble returning to “business as usual,” she said. That’s why the focus of tonight’s meeting, she said, will be on healing.
“Every time it seems like we get a Band Aid or that scab starts to heal, we’ve been hit with another tragedy,” she said. “How do we heal? That’s really where we’re all looking, is how do we heal."
A memorial service for Samantha Burkart will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, May 18, at St. John Vianney Catholic Church.