Paddling to Battle Suicide
Lauren Anikis, center, of Plainfield, N.H. talks with Kirsten Kersey of West Lebanon, N.H. as Conor Hogan, left, of Clifton Springs, N.Y. swims during a Paddlepower lunch break at Northeast Corner Farm in Norwich on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Paddlepower is a two-day paddling fundraiser for the West Central Behavioral Health Center, which assists people with chronic mentall illness. The girls are part of part of Team Paddle for Jazzie, which is named after their late friend Jasmine. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Sandi Wagner of Claremont, N.H. shows displayspins representing ten years of volunteering for Paddlepower while waiting to assist in serving the paddlers lunch at Northeast Corner Farm in Norwich on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Sandi is the lead nurse for West Central Behavioral Health, which benefits from the two-day fundraiser. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Melissa Hawley, center, is helped into her kayak by volunteers following a Paddlepower lunch break at Northeast Corner Farm in Norwich on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Paddlepower is a two-day paddling fundraiser for the West Central Behavioral Health Center, which treats people with chronic mental illness. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Kayaks and canoes are lined up on the shore during a Paddlepower lunch break at Northeast Corner Farm in Norwich on Saturday, August 17, 2013. Paddlepower is a two-day paddling fundraiser for the West Central Behavioral Health Center, which assists people with chronic mentall illness. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Norwich — Sharon Christie wore a white collared shirt with “Life is Good” written on her right sleeve and the initials of her son and son-in-law on her left sleeve. Both men died from suicide.
Her son, Joshua, would have turned 37 on Tuesday, and each year, Christie and her husband, Mark, celebrate his birthday by participating in PaddlePower, a 25-mile kayak or canoe trip down the Connecticut River to raise money for suicide prevention.
“When we first came, we didn’t want it to be sad, and it’s not,” Christie said on Saturday. “Everybody has a story. It’s like a reunion every year.”
For 11 years, men and women from across New England have sent out letters to family and friends requesting donations for West Central Behavioral Health’s emergency mental health services in an effort to help with suicide prevention. The families then gather in Orford in the early morning hours and begin a two-day trek down the Connecticut River. Like the Christies, most of the families and friends taking part have been affected by suicide.
At 10 minutes after 1 p.m. on Saturday, the first kayak could be seen rounding a curve on the river just north of Northeast Corner Farm in Norwich, and a record-high 183 kayakers soon met at a dock connected to the farm’s large hay field. They created a massive water traffic jam as they clambered out of their kayaks and headed for a buffet of turkey and ham sandwiches.
Volunteers waded into the Connecticut River to welcome paddlers as they arrived.
“You pull up and it’s like a valet service,” joked John Gregory-Davis, of Meriden, who paddled on Team Paddle for Jazzie, which was established to honor Jasmine Rogers, who died of suicide in 2011.
As a state-designated health center, West Central Behavioral Health is required to offer emergency services. The health center, which serves southern Grafton County and all of Sullivan County, does receive state funding, but it’s not enough, said Heidi Postupack, director of marketing and development. And because many of the emergency services are offered at no cost, the program saw a net loss of $150,000 a year ago, which is why fundraising from PaddlePower is essential.
Last year, paddlers raised $135,000 for the emergency mental health services. The department offers a 24-hour emergency hotline for anyone dealing with a mental health crisis. The hotline received about 3,000 calls a year, Postupack said. The department also offers emergency services to school and employers during a crisis, such as the death of a coworker.
Postupack said the organization won’t be counting this year’s donations until Monday, and they expect additional donations to continue to arrive in the mail throughout the month.
The Christies, who live in Rutland, have been participating for about eight years.
Their group has grown from just the two of them the first year to 10 people this year. During their years paddling, they have raised between $20,000 and $25,000.
The Christies’ son, Joshua, was 26 when he died by suicide. He had always dealt with depression but never talked about suicide. Sharon Christie said her son’s death is still a mystery to her because he was “so good looking and brilliant. He had everything.”
“In this day and age, everyone is on Facebook and distracted by social media and life gets complicated. People need to reach out to others and say hi. People need to connect,” Sharon Christie said.
At PaddlePower, families do connect.
Last year, Sharon Christie said, two participating families had both lost a child to suicide a few weeks before the event. Both families were back again this year, and Sharon Christie said she was happy to see that they made it through a tough year.
While the Christies were eating lunch, a friend Michael Rubin, came up to say hello. The Christies met Rubin, of Newburgh, N.Y., five years ago through PaddlePower and they’ve become close friends. Both families have lost a child to suicide.
PaddlePower has helped Rubin with grief and closure and he and Mark Christie have cried together.
“You cry and you move forward,” Rubin said. “(Suicide) becomes a silent thing that nobody talks about, but if we talk about it, maybe we can prevent a suicide.”
It was hard Saturday to find someone in a kayak or canoe who hadn’t been affected by suicide. Sarah Kennell, of Claremont, has worked at West Central Behavioral Health for almost 30 years and is the mother of a suicide victim. She paddled her 10th PaddlePower this year on the River Rats team.
“This event is really helpful to people who have had suicide in their lives because you don’t have to look very far to find someone else whose life has been touched by suicide,” she said.
Karen Danskin traveled from Waterford, Conn., for her first PaddlePower. She paddled on Team Danskin in honor of her son, Stirling, who died of suicide 14 months ago. She noted the power of a large group of people whose lives have been affected by suicide.
“On the water I’ll say, ‘tell me your story,’ ” she said. “It’s been therapeutic.”
Gerard McAllister, a member of Team Danskin, knew Stirling through an electronic dance music production company they founded together. He also noticed the therapeutic effects of the weekend.
“You’re physically bumping into other boats, but you’re also bumping into stories,” he said. “This is going to be an ongoing tradition from here on out.”
Valley News staff writer Rianna Starheim contributed to this report. Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.