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Fundraising lemonade stand honors boy who took his own life

  • Jo-Anne Unruh, Special Needs Support Center board president, holds a T-shirt up that says on the back "#Jackwashere12" during a fundraiser in honor of Jack Isenberg, who died by suicide at age 12 in spring 2018. Jack's mother Danielle Bencze, center, of Orford, N.H., had baked goods and beverages at a lemonade stand in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, Aug., 17, 2019. All donations from the sale went to the Special Needs Support Center in Lebanon, N.H., and Bencze supplied information about autism support and services for families in the community. Nicki Thrall, right, and her daughter Anastasia Moody, both of Orford, were there to support the family. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Sara Rose, of Hanover, N.H., takes a selfie during a fundraiser honoring Jack Isenberg in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. Rose was Isenberg's fifth- and sixth-grade science teacher at the Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee. Rose also helped with refreshments at the lemonade stand.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Danielle Bencze, of Orford, N.H., supplies cards with her son's photo during a fundraiser in Fairlee, Vt., on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. Bencze said she hopes people will use the cards for acts of kindness. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 18, 2019

FAIRLEE — On his busiest day, Sophia Isenberg estimates, her brother Jack raised maybe $14 from the lemonade stand he ran on Orford’s Indian Pond Road for two summers.

On Saturday morning, less than four cloudy hours into their sale of lemonade and snacks at the Fairlee flea market, Jack’s family and fans already needed to make room in a jar bursting with $20 and $10 and $5 and $1 donations to the Special Needs Support Center (SNSC) of the Upper Valley.

And the sun was finally peeking through with five hours left in this tribute to the 12-year-old boy with autism who died by suicide in late May 2018, after what his family describes as years of bullying by his peers.

“I wasn’t worried about whether the forecast might keep people away,” said Sara Rose, who taught Jack science in grades 5 and 6 at Fairlee’s Samuel Morey Elementary School. “I knew there was already a buzz on social media, that the word had already started to spread.

“I think it’s been a wild success so far.”

Whatever the final total, which the family said on Sunday remains to be counted up, 16-year-old Sophia Isenberg and her and Jack’s mother, Danielle Bencze, will measure success at least as much by how much awareness the gathering ends up raising as by how much money rolls in.

“After it happened, most people didn’t know what to say to us,” Sophia, who is two years her brother’s senior, recalled while her mother sold refreshments and raffle tickets and greeted visitors. “In the community, it’s still kind of a hushed thing to talk about.”

On Saturday, Bencze said, “a few people so far have shared their losses.” She started striving to jump-start conversations, as well as to help other families cope with similar traumas, within a few weeks of Jack’s death.

In media interviews and on internet support-group sites, Bencze has said that while Jack charmed close family and older people, he struggled to make friends his own age, between his autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.

In the aftermath of his death, Bencze scoured research on the connection between autism and suicide, including a 2013 study that found that children on the autism spectrum, like non-autistic kids with depression, were 28 times more likely to think about, talk about or attempt suicide than were kids diagnosed as “typical.”

Looking for a way to “honor Jack” and to help others, around the time of Jack’s Aug. 5 birthday — which would have been his 14th — Bencze and her daughter decided to sell lemonade and some of Jack’s favorite snacks to support the Lebanon-based Special Needs Support Center, which is in its 40th year.

“They help a lot of people,” Sophia said. “They have programs that bring kids with special needs out in public, so they can interact with everyone else. They do things like educate law enforcement on recognizing the signs of particular conditions that people have.”

So far this year, executive director Laura Perez said during the fundraiser, “we’re working with more than 450 families on more than 3,500 different occasions.”

And aside from the money raised, Perez welcomed the idea of the lemonade stand as a way not only to help individuals with special needs but to show families such as Jack’s, as well as parents who care for their children deep into adulthood, that there are others in the same boat.

“A lot of it is loneliness and isolation,” said Perez, adding that she also has a special-needs child. “Peer support is so important. … Parents should not have to feel alone. There are studies out there showing that the stress from the health impact of what people go through is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”

Jack’s former science teacher hopes that as awareness grows about SNSC-UV, the educational community will reach out more fully for help dealing with struggling students, their families and their peers.

“Resources!” Sara Rose said. “Always looking for resources.”

Early on at Samuel Morey School, Rose relied mostly on instinct in helping Jack soldier through grades 5 and 6.

“He was a sweetheart,” she recalled. “Fantastic sense of humor. Very caring. He was good at forging relationships with adults. … In science, the hands-on aspect really appealed to him. I remember him being really good in making presentations. He had this charismatic way with people.”

Especially when they stopped on Indian Pond Road to buy his lemonade.

“We didn’t go down everyday, just when we felt like it,” Sophia Isenberg said. “It was fine if we made some money, but mostly Jack just liked talking to people.”

To learn more about the programs of the Special Needs Support Center, visit snsc-vu.org.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.