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Community Forum informs and upsets
Successful and enlightening are two of the words used to describe Tuesday night’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention Community Forum held in at the Porterville Memorial Auditorium.
The forum, a collaboration between the City and local school districts, offered information and hope to the community following several recent tragic suicides.
With Porterville City Mayor Virginia Gurrola as the moderator, she introduced four panel forum members to the approximate 500 gathered at the auditorium.
On the panel was Noah Whitaker, community outreach manager, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency; Leann Gouveia, executive director, Fresno Survivors of Suicide Loss, Inc.; Steve Walker, Porterville police chaplain and juvenile delinquency officer; and Joe Hamilton, licensed marriage and family therapist with TC HHSA.
A translation system was also in place in two areas for those who did not speak or understand English. In addition, two microphones were set up to allow for questions following the panel discussion. For those who did not feel comfortable approaching the microphone, the question could be written on an index card and offered to an usher to take forward.
Prior to the questions, all four panel members spoke.
“We’re all here this evening to discuss a very important subject,” Gurrola said before introducing the panel, school and city officials. “We as a community need to understand the signs of suicide. Now is the time to get the answers, to help us through this to find ways to help one another. Today, tonight, let’s get some answers.”
The panel members spoke one at a time, offering information on what they do and some of the signs to look for.
Whitaker offered startling facts, including the number of suicides compared to homicides, the financial cost of emergency room visits and hospitalizations relating to suicide attempts, and some of the risk factors that contribute to suicide attempts, including family history of suicide, alcohol, drugs, incarceration, stressful life events and easy access to lethal methods.
He stressed paying attention and being more sensitive to individuals with risk factors and pointed out several warning signs to watch for.
Hamilton also pointed out signs, including sleep pattern changes, low energy, poor concentration, irritability and isolation.
“The single most important thing you can do to help prevent suicide is to listen,” Whitaker said. “Don’t try to fix them. You are probably not going to be the person to fix it.”
In the audience was John Snavely, PUSD Superintendent, part of the team who put the forum together.
“I was very pleased with the turn out. When you plan an event such as this, it is gratifying to know the community had this much interest and enough to warrant enough interest to bring their children to it,” he said and indicated that it was important to be proactive and to present the forum as soon as possible. The team is set to meet again, he said, to see what next steps need to take place.
City Manager John Lollis agreed, saying he was encouraged by the community’s attendance.
“There was great engagement and great questions,” he said. “The panel did a great job and Noah Whitaker offered to take all the questions and place responses online.”
More forums will probably be planned, he said, and next time they will narrow the forum and aim them to youth.
Some of those in attendance did not feel the information zoned in to what they were expecting to hear, specifically answers to bullying issues.
“A lot of people are here wanting answers,” said Greg Gillette, a local attorney and former Burton School Board member, who said the public wanted specific information on symptoms. “What am I looking for? Where do I go? What do we have in the city, specifically? What symptoms are we looking for? It needs to be more relevant.”
As the panel began answering the questions, other questions — anonymously written on pieces of paper — were sent forward.
As the panel went over some of the same information previously covered, many in the audience began to leave.
Ten minutes later, a woman in the audience walked to an open microphone.
“Thank you all who stayed,” said Cathy Paul in a breaking voice. “The 13 year old girl who took her life was my niece. My brother and his wife did everything they could to help that little girl. She showed no signs. She was normal that day.”
Paul, a Porterville High Class of 73 alumni, is a 25-year retired bus driver, 13 of the years in Porterville.
“I worked diligently on building a rapport with the students and anyone who wanted to talk to me,” she said. “I could make a child’s day or I could break a child’s day.”
A child’s day could be brightened with a simple ‘Hello,’ Paul said.
“It works. Maybe not now but it does. Everything you do to help these kids, matters,” Paul said to the small crowd that stayed. “You can be the most important person in a child’s life.”
A simple kindness, tenderness, lovingness — total appreciation for kids — makes a difference, she said.
“I beg everybody to step our of their comfort zone, put an arm around a child, say you understand,” Paul said as the crowd erupted in heavy applause.
Gouveia called it a ‘Glimmer of Hope’ and said it is the little things one does that don’t cost anything and mean the most.
By 9 p.m., most of the submitted questions had not been answered.
Out in the lobby, many who had stepped out gathered to discuss among themselves.
“My frustration is on the evening,” Gillette said. “There’s no protocol. We were sold on bullying. This audience is 90 percent Latino and they aren’t addressing any of the issues.”
“They don’t know how to address the issue,” said Don McCulloch Jr. of Springville.
However school officials disagreed. In the lobby, numerous people gathered around informational booths, picking up materials on suicide awareness and speaking with a few school counselors.
“Even if it wakes up just one family or touches one person, it was well worth our efforts,” said Sharon Kamberg, assistant superintendent of Burton School District. “There were a lot of people concerned about the youth. The community is hurting but they’re coming together. This is a healing process for our community. We’re going to move forward and continue to concentrate on our students.”
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.