The life of YouthSpeak over these past eleven years has been quite a journey. I have poured my heart and soul into many hours of hard work and perseverance, of inspiration, and times of surviving on a hope and a prayer. Growing YouthSpeak has been mind-expanding and character-building, but so too have my personal experiences. Within my family we experience the many faces of mental illness, all of which lead to overwhelming feelings of sadness, loss, fear, powerlessness, judgement, guilt and a complete heaviness that comes with them. But these experiences have also planted seeds for motivation, understanding, tolerance, resilience, inspiration, faith and more faith…and of course, the making of YouthSpeak.
It was a beautiful service. We did a wonderful job of honoring our son, Gavin who died on his nineteenth birthday in a weather-related car accident. He was with his girlfriend on their way to have dinner with friends. She had turned seventeen years old two days before. She survived, he didn’t. When the police knocked on our door at 11:00 pm, one of the many times police have knocked on our door, there was no turning back in that moment. It becomes a memory you want to erase because maybe then, the news wouldn’t be true. Of all the times I worried about Gavin when he would be travelling home late at night from work and the risks he took as a teenager, this day, the day of his death, I didn’t worry.
I was blessed to have a great sense of peace along with my sadness. I believe Gavin has been an angel helping me continue the work of YouthSpeak. When I first thought of the idea for this program, Gavin was eager to become one of our first youth speakers. We proudly stood together on stage as he shared his story of low self-esteem, feeling depressed and making unhealthy choices, and of course including his words of wisdom learned at a young age.
Ten years and two months after the passing of Gavin, our son Kyle took his own life – September 18, 2014. This recent loss in our family has been a very raw and real reminder about the importance of the work of YouthSpeak, and provided even greater motivation expand our reach out to others who are struggling.
Losing Gavin, and now losing Kyle are challenges amongst many others in my “not so simple” life…not so simple fits somewhere along a spectrum from devastatingly painful to deeply meaningful. These are the times when many of us going through challenges need small gestures, little inspirations, something to hold onto to keep us hopeful. It was my faith that got me through this, even if sometimes I had to dig very deep to find it. When you find faith in the most devastating circumstances, it is very empowering; accepting the loss, walking through the challenge and coming out the other side with new knowledge and a renewed sense of inner strength. Our youth speakers are a profound example of this. They, like many, are wonderful people whose potential and gifts became buried, for a period of time, beneath some poor decisions, lack of self-acceptance and adverse life circumstances.
Given that story-telling is the oldest form of communication, it is no surprise that a personal story inspires, motivates and educates in a meaningful and memorable way. Our team of youth speakers each share their story, a thought or message and a useful tool that has helped them along their journey. They plant seeds, shift attitudes, they even save lives – that seems like a big claim to make, however, we have had students come forward and share this with us. Sometimes it is one simple phrase or gesture that resonates with someone deep in their veins and it becomes a go-to thought that supports change and healing. We should never underestimate the value of giving hope, to even that one person in the audience who really needs it.
To date, YouthSpeak had provided inspirational stories to over 150,000 students, teachers, police, parents and other caring adults in our communities. We have experienced tremendous growth, but we are also in a transitional time where we need to take it a step up if we are to continue improving the mental health and well-being in our young people. The youth voice that our organization provides must be included in the mix of services to support youth facing challenges if we are to truly have an impact and give hope.