Students at Gilbert High School come together to create a more welcoming environment after the suicide deaths of two classmates.
Seniors Ben Melody and Adelaide Searls and juniors, Alison Foogery and Jack Hackett, said their school had resources such as counseling and reminders about helpline numbers. But they said they had to do more for mental health after Gilbert lost two students to suicide in recent years: Nolan Clewell, 16, in November 2021, and Henry Owen, 17, in September 2020.
“Nobody was going to do that for us,” Melody said.
“We knew this had to be personal to what Gilbert is,” he said. “Our students for our students.”
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The members of the group, called Moving Forward, had never been friends with each other before, but came together after the death of Clewell, the second student to die by suicide in less than a year. Melody said they want people to know they are loved, and that they can reach out to someone when they need help.
Searles spoke about Clewell’s death and her mental struggles at an Ames community conversation about suicide in October. She said at the time that she did not know that anything would be the same after his death.
“But I didn’t know it could get any better,” Searles said.
The group was formed to improve mental health by building social connections between students that might not otherwise exist. School groups are becoming unsanitary, Melody said, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to get close to new people.
Moving Forward has been hosting free socials since March. So far this fall, they have a Banford Park barbecue in August, a movie, game, and car smash night in September, a bonfire at McFarland Park and a Halloween event in October, and a Thanksgiving dinner this month.
The Gilbert Community School District said in a press release that movie night in September drew more than 170 students — nearly a third of high school students. Moving forward is independent of the school district.
Hackett said that at moving-forward events he has seen people bring tables together to sit with others. “It’s like trying to kick an old habit,” he said of making friends outside of a person’s core group.
But Fugere said it was good to see the friend groups merge because of that moving forward. “It takes a lot of courage to go talk to someone new,” she added. Searles said the group has changed students’ daily lives as people are now doing their best to help or make connections with someone else.
It’s a group for mental health, Melody said, “but it’s also a good way to live.”
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Students drive change
Some adults helped out by making a donation or being chaperones at events, but the students are in charge of the group. The money they raise from merchandise sales and donations covers event costs such as games, food, and decorations.
Moving forward, Superintendent Christine Trujillo said in the district’s press release, “listened to the needs of the children and they’ve gone the extra mile.”
“It wasn’t just about getting kids to an event,” she said. “They connected with the kids, they got to know the kids’ names, it was about getting the kids to say everybody belongs here.”
Moving Forward has changed the lives of co-founders and alumni Searles and Melody as well. Searls said it changed her view of a future career. Instead of studying business, you want to help troubled youth as a mentor, kids club leader, or become a therapist.
Melody said he wanted to go to Catholic seminary rather than study engineering.
“I fell in love with helping others,” he said.
The goal is to keep the group active even after the seniors graduate. Move Forward can be found on Facebook and Instagram @moveforward50014.
How do I get help
There are many state and national resources for those contemplating suicide, as well as resources for family or friends who may be worried about a loved one.
- Your Life Iowa – Call 855-581-8111 or text 855-895-8398 for free, confidential support 24/7. Other online resources are available at yourlifeiowa.org. There is also a live chat function on the site.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 988 toll-free 24/7, confidential support in English or Spanish. Other online resources are available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
- Foundation 2 Crisis Center – Call 800-332-4224 from anywhere in Iowa for free, confidential 24/7 support. Other online resources are available at foundation2.org/services/crisis-center/.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and Pre-K-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Philip can be reached via email at email@example.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.