May 15—Late Friday morning, Booker T. Washington High School students gathered for a solemn oak tree planting ceremony, one intended to help them heal and to remind others that everyone has a role in teen suicide prevention.
The small tree will grow to become a mighty oak, a symbol of strength, hope and courage, said Christy Ellis, Washington High School art teacher.
"The word 'suicide' is something that we don't want to be afraid to talk about and this is one reason why we are planting this tree today," Ellis said. "It will serve as a message to our community that everyone has a responsibility toward suicide prevention."
The school's Bring Change 2 Mind Club conducted the ceremony; the club is part of a national organization that focuses on student mental health and suicide awareness. The school started the group in March.
The ceremony was also intended to help students heal; they lost one of their peers to suicide late last year.
On a perfect spring day, the students gathered in a circle outside the school on a lawn area along East Davis Drive. They each took a small yellow flower bouquet tied with aqua and purple ribbons, colors used to promote suicide prevention awareness.
"Our community has experienced suicide way too often," Ellis said during the ceremony. "Many of us have known someone, heard about someone or had a family member" who died as the result of suicide.
For many, it may be hard to say the word. "But we need to know that it is ok to talk about it, and BC2M is very proud about this day and what this special oak tree will represent."
She told a personal story about losing a cousin to suicide when Ellis was just 12 years old. "It was a day that I will never forget. I'm now 53 and that day has stayed with me forever," she said.
Ellis asked students in the circle, if they chose, to each say the first name of someone they knew whose life was lost to suicide. Later, each student shared a word about what the oak tree means as a symbol of suicide prevention: they used such words as courage, strength, resilience, comfort, healing of body/ mind and survival.
Students then took turns helping plant the tree.
After the ceremony, Ellis said the club is much-needed, and the COVID pandemic has added mental health stress for many students.
After one of their peers died by suicide last year, students talked about it and the club was formed. "Our young people are struggling," Ellis said. She makes herself available to her students, including by cell phone.
Young people often have a hard time processing things, and it's also often difficult for them to put things into words, she said. "When we can do something like plant a tree, it's our actions that can help us heal ... It's kind of a way to heal and move forward and just hope that nobody else in our community will take that route to suicide."
One of the students, Bryce Tompkins, said he lost someone to suicide. "I lost somebody that was a really good friend of mine. ... He was like a brother to me."
The club is an important way to create awareness about teen suicide and to help prevent it, he said.
He hopes the oak tree, and what it stands for, reminds people, including young people, to reach out and talk to someone if they are having problems; he hopes it reminds others to take the time to listen when someone in crisis reaches out.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.