Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Violence and suicide forum hits personal note


Two men and two women stepped onto an empty stage at Santa Barbara High School to share painfully personal stories about how suicide or violence has changed their lives.
A former gang member who broke out of an abusive relationship to start her life anew. A woman who lost her fiancé first to alcohol and medications, then suicide.
A child of Watts who grew up to broker peace between violent, warring factions. A local sheriff’s deputy who watched a young man jump to his death, unable to help.

Their stories spilled over the hushed audience at the Glendon Association’s 14th annual Violence and Suicide Prevention Forum last week, along with the hope that their experiences will stir awareness and save others from similar pain.

It’s not an easy memory for Dep. Ken Rushing to conjure up. Moments after launching into the events of July 2005, he is already choking back his emotions.
Three years ago, the sheriff’s deputy and coroner got a call from dispatch. A young man was on Cold Spring Arch Bridge and appeared to be on the verge of jumping. He had set his truck on fire and backed it into the brush along the roadway before walking to the center of the span.
On his way up San Marcos Pass, Rushing pored over his training and tried to come up with a plan. By the time he reached the top of the pass, he could see flames and knew that situation needed immediate attention.
“My concern was the serious nature of a wildfire,” he said.
Luckily, he had two fire extinguishers in the trunk of his squad car and handed them off to citizens who were willing to help. He told them to put out the brush to buy time until firefighters arrived.
As he walked out onto the bridge, Rushing immediately noticed the railing only came up to mid-thigh. His heart began pounding.
As he tried to control his emotions, he again thought back to his years of training, in the Ventura County Sheriff’s academy and on patrol throughout Santa Barbara County for a decade.
“All of my training in my career could not have prepared me for the situation on this morning,” Rushing said.
He edged closer to the young man and contemplated grabbing him away from the 220-foot drop. But thoughts of his wife of 15 years, as well as his son and daughter, kept him from taking that risky action.
“It’s certain death,” he said. “It will be a fatal fall.”
Inching within 10 feet of the subject, he paused and spoke. Hey buddy, I’m Deputy Rushing of the sheriff’s department. Can I help you?
The young man remained leaning against the railing, staring straight ahead. Rushing noticed he had used a razor to cut his wrists and spotted an empty aspirin bottle at his feet.
“I realized this young man is serious,” he said.
Rushing stepped closer. Hey buddy, just let me talk to you. No response.
Rushing knew nothing about the teenager in that moment other than that he was at the lowest point in his life. Seconds passed like hours. The young man stepped over the railing, squatted, grabbed the railing and let his feet dangle.

Rushing stepped back, his heart thumping and blood rushing in his ears. Is there anything I can do to help you?
The teen pulled his feet back up and began to bounce up and down.
“I realized he was starting to count down the last moments of his life,” Rushing said.
As the young man stood up and fell backward, Rushing ran forward and dropped to a knee, leaning over as far as he could and shining his flashlight toward the disappearing figure.
After saying a prayer, he called dispatch to report what had happened. With the image of the young man in his head, he stood up and tears started to boil in his eyes.
But he had a job to do. He walked back to his squad car and drove to the bottom of the gorge, yelling out into the brush for any signs of life.
His partner arrived shortly and took over. Rushing found a quiet spot and cried before calling his wife.
“She was the strong one, just explaining that I had done everything I could do,” he said. “…I felt like I had failed this young man who had taken his life right in front of me.”
He approached his superiors, asking why barriers hadn’t been installed on the bridge. The teen was tall, Rushing said, and could have pulled him over if he had made a grab at him.
A Caltrans project to install higher barriers, a much-debated proposal in the community, is currently in the planning process.
The young man’s image still returns, however, springing up at random moments on the job or when Rushing is with his family.
“I’m still struggling with these images,” he said. “I live with them daily.”

Nancy Cornejo credits angels for watching over her during her struggles in life. She grew up in Santa Barbara, born to El Salvadoran parents who wanted a good life for their children.
“They wanted to give us everything they weren’t able to have while growing up,” she said.
But with several brothers and sisters, Cornejo became starved for attention and found acceptance with an Eastside gang, dropping out of school.
At 14, she came across Primo Boxing, a local nonprofit organization that caters to youth who might not be able to afford to join other afterschool athletic programs. They made her feel like she belonged.
“I felt accepted,” she said. “I felt protected.”
When she came to City At Peace, another local nonprofit that promotes nonviolence and tolerance through the performing arts, Cornejo was 19 years old, pregnant and in an abusive relationship.
After two years, she managed to extricate herself and lived as a single parent for the next four years. Choked up, she described how the relationship had been very controlling and emotionally abusive.
“It was not easy,” she said. “My son had to suffer those consequences with me and go through a lot with me.”
She returned to high school and set her sights on a college degree. But she was taking care of her teen brothers and the pressure caught up. Cornejo dropped out of Santa Barbara City College.
A few years ago, however, she met a caring man. He married her and the couple is starting a new family. With that support, she is returning to school to pursue a psychology degree.
In an effort to give back, she also joined City At Peace to facilitate for other youth.
“I was very blessed to have all these angels in my path,” she said.

Sarah Farmer is very careful about the movies she sees, the places she goes and the people she surrounds herself with.
“So much brings me back to this one man who had such an impact on my life,” she said.
In 2003, she met Sgt. Jeffrey M. Lehner, a Marine who had returned from Afghanistan to take care of his ailing father. He became a friend first, then a fiancé and father figure to her young daughter.
The couple began planning their wedding. But Lehner was suffering.
“He had experienced some horrific things in Afghanistan,” Farmer said.
As a flight engineer, he had been scheduled to go out on a mission, but was pulled off at the last moment. The aircraft crashed and Lehner had to head out to the scene to collect airplane parts and body parts alike.
“He often didn’t know if what he was picking up was a part of the plane or a body part until it squished in his hand,” Farmer said.
Nightmares disturbed his sleep and he would shake during the day. He saw things out of the corner of his eye and had to sit with his back to the wall in restaurants.
Lehner began to drink and abuse medications, Farmer said.
“This man began to crumble before my eyes,” she said.
She tried to get help, through Veterans Affairs and private practices. But doctors began to overlap each other on prescriptions. Lehner became so medicated he was barely coherent.
After going into a coma and spending three days in the Intensive Care Unit, he sobered up. Two months later, Farmer let her fiancé take her daughter to the park to play as she went to the store to buy supplies for a family barbecue.
When she returned, something didn’t seem right. On the driver’s side of Lehner’s car, she found an empty vodka bottle and confronted him. What is this? she asked.
Her daughter, not even 2 years old at the time, looked up and replied, “Daddy’s bahbah.”
Farmer called the engagement off and asked Lehner for a year of sobriety. They remained friends.
“That was the hardest decision I have ever made,” she said.
Months passed and Lehner was doing well. Talk about the wedding started again, although Farmer was holding to her requirement of a full sober year.
Then, on Dec. 7, 2003 — Pearl Harbor Day, Farmer recalls — she went to the driveway to pick up the paper and on the front page it said he was dead. It didn’t give his name, but she knew.
How many 43-year-old Marine veterans lived with their father on Twin Ridge Road off San Marcos Pass? The story said he had shot his father, then turned the gun on himself.
Farmer’s knees stopped working and she collapsed to the pavement. After a difficult recovery period, she started asking questions. Where was the help her fiancé needed?
In the months that followed, she formed the Lehner Foundation to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with stress and provide them with psychiatric help. She also became an ordained minister and performs wedding ceremonies.

As the youngest of 10 children growing up in Watts, Aqeela Sherrills had no toys, no television.
“All we had was each other and our imagination,” he said.
The five youngest children of the Sherrills clan would gather together for hours on end to tell the Story, describing supernatural powers each sibling had. It was from that experience that Sherrills decided he would do something great with his life.
But at 12 years old, fresh out of elementary school, he got involved with gangs. At Markham Middle School, the place where a single stabbing had spawned a 30-year war between rival factions in the neighborhood, kids didn’t always have a choice to stay out of gangs.
If someone came up to you and asked where you were from, Sherrills said, that was the cue to brawl. So when someone came up to him on the first day of school and gave the cue, he jumped in.
The war continued through high school. He described it as war, describing how victims suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hypervigilance. But unlike war, there are no peace envoys or aid.
“Because there is no war in the United States,” Sherrills said.
In ninth grade, his good friend was shot and killed on campus. The crack cocaine epidemic hit in the mid-80s and the neighborhood really fell apart.
All the girls he had fallen in love with growing up had started selling their bodies for crack. Escaping to CSU Northridge, Sherrills began searching for a place to put his anger and frustration. He settled on the American government and white folks.
With the help of several mentors, including members of the New African Movement on campus, he came to realize he had to take responsibility for his own situation.
In 1989, Sherills lost 13 good friends to Watts. He dropped out of Northridge and became an organizer in the community, talking with “key cats” about how to stop the killing.
After four years of meetings, he helped develop a curriculum, a “short course in human development.” The efforts led to a peace treaty in 1992 that truly changed the quality of life in Watts.
“It was totally overwhelming,” Sherrills said, describing how grandmothers started walking outside again and children started playing in parks.
Homicides dropped 44 percent in two years. But Sherrills emphasized that peace is not a destination, not some happy, lasting paradise.
Conflict can’t be avoided, he said, but communities need to find a way to resolve that conflict. They must constantly return to the table to renegotiate.
Despite losing his eldest son to gang violence — a topic he didn’t bring up during his speech — Sherrills has continued to travel the world brokering peace, working through the Amer-I-Can Program that he co-founded.
“Peace is very hard work,” he said.

No comments: