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Handmade and Heartfelt: Upper Valley Women Post Signs to Deter Suicides at Quechee Gorge

  • Jess Keene, of Lebanon, N.H., left and Jessica Arruda, of Wilder, Vt., look over some of the suicide prevention signs they have put up along the Quechee Gorge bridge on Aug. 1, 2018 in Quechee, Vt.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • One of a number of handmade suicide prevention signs along the Quechee Gorge bridge in Quechee, Vt., is seen on Aug. 1, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jess Keene, of Lebanon, N.H., center and Jessica Arruda, of Wilder, Vt., speak with Alice Schwartz, right, along the Quechee Gorge bridge on Aug. 1, 2018 in Quechee, Vt. Keene and Arruda have put up homemade suicide prevention signs along the bridge. Schwartz traveling with her husband and daughter from New Jersey, talked about the signs with the women. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Faigy and Leiby Reich, of New York City, look at the suicide prevention signs along the Quechee, Gorge bridge on Aug. 1, 2018 in Quechee Vt. Faigy took a number of photographs of the signs while taking in the view at the popular tourist site. (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
Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Quechee — Jess Keene knows all too well the far-reaching impacts suicide can have on a family.

The 27-year-old Lebanon resident’s mother died by suicide in Florida in 2003 when Keene was 11. Not only did she grow up without her mother, but Keene now feels the pain of her children not having been nurtured by their maternal grandmother.

The expansive hurt of losing a loved one by suicide is like no other, Keene said today. And that’s why she and her friend Jessica Arruda, of Wilder, who has a background in the mental health field and also has seen the trickle-down effects of suicide, took a stand this week to try and help people who may be contemplating suicide at the Quechee Gorge, which has been the site of four deaths since January.

The pair spent several hours on Tuesday evening fastening index cards with handwritten messages to the Quechee Gorge Bridge railing. Many of the roughly 30 cards include the national suicide hotline number.

“Step back — you’re worth it!,” reads one card.

“You have the power to say this is not how my story ends,” another says.

“Fight with all you have. Tomorrow is a new day,” a third tells readers. 

If Keene and Arruda’s small signs, which are are zip-tied to the top rail along the bridge and are barely visible from the roadway, are the reason just one person decides not to jump from the bridge, they would have succeeded with their initiative, they said.

“We want to let people know that they are not alone, that people do care about them. No one would be better off if they were no longer here,” Keene said today. “That’s what my mom thought … that if she was gone we would be better off. 

“I have always said I wish there was more I could do to help people realize that that is not the best option, that that is not the answer,” Keene continued. 

She first thought about writing uplifting messages on sticky notes and posting them in different places throughout the Upper Valley, but a more targeted approach at the gorge made sense given the recent suicides there, Keene said. That was compounded by a story the women recently read about a British teenager who posted uplifting signs on a problem bridge in the United Kingdom.

“We thought that was a great idea,” said Keene, who co-owns Domino’s Pizza franchises in West Lebanon and Hanover with her husband.

Arruda, 30, travels Route 4 over the Quechee Gorge frequently and said she has been forced to take a detour several times recently; the town re-routes traffic every time officials retrieve the body of a person who jumped.

“We really want people to know that there is a community here that cares,” Arruda said.

As of mid-day, the women said they had received positive feedback from the community on the signs.

Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar deferred to state officials about whether they would keep the signs up or take them down. The state owns the bridge. A message left for a Quechee Gorge Bridge project manager at the Vermont Agency of Transportation wasn’t immediately returned.

The hand-written signs aren’t the only new suicide prevention measure at the gorge. Someone recently posted stickers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that read, “Walk to Fight Suicide,” and includes a website about walks near and far.

The new measures come one week after the Vermont Agency of Transportation and local officials held a meeting in Hartford where attendees finalized plans for erecting a chain-linked fence at the gorge as an interim suicide prevention measure. A permanent barrier wall or netting below won’t be instituted until 2022.

Some townspeople have expressed concerns from an aesthetics standpoint with a fence.

The temporary fence and subsequent measures stem from legislation passed in 2016 requiring state officials to implement suicide-prevention measures and improve pedestrian and first responder safety in response to a number of suicides and other incidents. The gorge has been the site of 14 suicides between 2007 and July of this year, Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten previously said.

The state’s efforts thus far include installing two kiosks with a call button that rings a 24/7 counseling service offered by Lebanon-based Headrest and erecting steel signs that read “You Matter” and list the phone number for a crisis hotline.

Suicide rates are up in the Twin States, according to a report issued in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide rates in the U.S. have risen 25 percent between 1999 and 2016, and during that time, Vermont saw a suicide rate increase of 49 percent and New Hampshire’s rate increased by 48 percent, according to the report.

Several tourists visiting the gorge today took a moment to read the small signs from Keene and Arruda as they walked along the sidewalk and admired the view down to the Ottauquechee River, 165 feet below.

A husband and wife from New Jersey who travel often said they had never seen any handwritten signs on a bridge like the ones they saw today. They both figured the signs had been on the bridge rail for years.

“I think it is a beautiful idea,” said Alice Schwartz.

“Inspiring too,” her husband, Marty, added.

“The little things can really touch someone’s life,” their daughter, Diane Bubnick, said.

Another woman, Kathy Perras, from Easthampton, Mass., also thought the signs were a positive addition. Perras said she lost her husband to suicide.

“Maybe someone might reconsider,” Perras said. “It’s a reminder.”

Asked whether the Schwartzes would be bothered by a fence at the gorge, they said they wouldn’t be.

“If that would save a life, I am OK with that,” Marty Schwartz said.

Both Keene and Arruda said they too liked the idea of a temporary fence ahead of a long-term solution. Oftentimes, people who have survived a jump, or who have had a few extra seconds to contemplate jumping, have reconsidered their decision, they said.

“They can think about it more and say, wait a second, I really don’t want to do this,” Keene said.

“It would allow them to have that second chance,” Arruda said.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.