A Camas family’s devastating loss inspires ‘Our City Cares’ suicide prevention campaign

Joe and Sheryl Stephens want to unite community, combat tragedy with positive, hopeful messages

Jon Stephens, 25, took his own life on Aug. 31, 2016. The Camas native had never shown signs of depression, addiction, mental health issues or any of the other classic indicators of suicide risk. His death left a wide circle of grief-stricken family, friends and community members. Copyright Narrow Path Photography/Photo courtesy of the Stephens family

Jon Stephens’ grandmother, Verla Jonason (center), stands with Jon’s older brother, Dan Stephens (right) and Dan’s wife, Skylar Stephens. Verla says her family is still “grappling with the reality” that Jon took his own life. “Having faced this in my own family, I know the devastation that continues to change the lives of those left behind,” Verla says. “In reaching out for answers for our own pain, we have found how widespread this problem is ... We have so many in our local community that have suffered, and are continuing to suffer, from this tragedy.” Copyright Narrow Path Photography / Photo courtesy of the Stephens family

This illustration will accompany the Stephens family's "Our City Cares" suicide prevention campaign. Contributed illustration courtesy of the Stephens family

In the days and weeks that followed their 25-year-old son Jon’s suicide in August of 2016, Joe and Sheryl Stephens found themselves inside a powerful and, Sheryl says, complex circle of pain.

“For the survivors, the ones left behind after a person chooses suicide, the grief is complicated,” Sheryl says. “There is a sense of guilt, of ‘would’ve, should’ve’ that happens and, if you focus on that, you can find yourself in real jeopardy.”

Everyone grieves in their own unique way, but for Joe and Sheryl, finding their path through such an overwhelming pain took a combination of faith, family and community.

“We’re not saying, ‘we’re done, we got this,'” Joe says. “(The grief) is still there. It comes at different times. But, before Jon’s death, we wouldn’t have known what to say or do in this situation. We wouldn’t have understood.”

Now, the Stephens understand the catastrophic consequences all too well. They feel the pain inside themselves when they hold one of Jon’s welding tools or try to help one of his younger siblings pull through their own grieving process. They see the pain on the faces of Jon’s friends and members of their tight-knit church community.

“Suicide sends a subtle message of hopelessness out to the entire community,” Sheryl says. “The entire community is left with this complicated grief and guilt.”

And, now, as they approach the one-year anniversary of the day their child very unexpectedly chose to end his life — alone and thousands of miles away from his parents and five siblings, in the Ohio apartment he had recently moved into to start his welding-engineering education journey — the Stephens know something else: To truly get through their own grief, they must help others in their community.

“We don’t want this to happen to another parent, another family,” Sheryl says through tears. “The key is to unite the community, to have a voice of hope that is louder than that message of hopelessness.”

Their mission to help the community has turned into an 11-week suicide prevention campaign that will start on the evening of Aug. 31, exactly one year after Jon’s suicide.

The “Our City Cares” campaign is a multi-pronged effort that encompasses the entire Camas-Washougal community.

In their newly printed brochures, the Stephens explain that the campaign will, they hope, “unite businesses, churches, nonprofits, city governments and schools to combat the tragedy of suicide.”

“The shear magnitude of this problem is too big for any one entity to combat, but by uniting together, we can and must make a difference,” the Stephens’ campaign brochure states. “We believe that by uniting communities to communicate a clear message against the lies that people in turmoil believe, we can change the ripple effect.”

The Stephens say their own son did not exhibit any of the classic signs that signal someone may be considering suicide. In fact, as far as their family and Jon’s friends knew, he was a the very opposite of a suicide risk — a loving young man who had a large, supportive family and circle of friends, who had never struggled with mental health issues or addiction.

“We are still grappling with this,” says Jon’s grandmother, Sheryl’s mother, Verla Jonason, a longtime Camas-Washougal community member. “Jon was a fun-loving, thoughtful young man and was the first to reach out to others in need.”

The family firmly believes that what Jon did was his choice and that he allowed a temporary situation to overshadow all of the good in his life. Sheryl says she also believes that, had he fully understood the pain and suffering he was going to cause his entire family and community, Jon would not have chosen suicide.

Now, her focus is on helping others who may be in turmoil. The Our City Care campaign includes three aspects: the signs campaign, the 9-11 Walks and Talks and information cards for businesses and churches.

The signs campaign will place hopeful, encouraging messages throughout the Camas-Washougal community for the Our City Cares’ 11-week duration.

“Our world is hungry for encouraging words,” the campaign literature states. “Some people contemplating suicide are simply in bad circumstances and they need encouraging words.”

The Stephens say they find their own sense of peace knowing that, when they wake up on Sept. 1, instead of facing a second year of new grief, they will see words of encouragement throughout their own community — messages like “You’re Not Alone!” and “Your Mistakes Don’t Define You!” on walking paths, near schools, in parks and along the highways.

The second part of the campaign, the 9-11 Walks and Talks, begins on Sept. 1, just in time for National Suicide Prevention Month, and runs for 11 weeks. Sheryl explains that this part of the campaign stemmed from something her own friends did for her in the weeks and months after Jon’s death.

“People would ask, ‘What do you need? What can I do?’ and I would say, ‘Will you walk with me?'” Sheryl says.

For months after Jon’s suicide, friends showed up at Sheryl’s Camas-area home six days a week — she reserved Sundays for her church and immediate family members — and they would simply walk and talk. Sometimes they talked about Jon. Sometimes they talked about Sheryl. Sometimes they talked about everything but Jon and suicide. No matter what the topic, Sheryl says, the act of just walking and talking and being with someone who cared helped pull her through the darkest days.

“That’s what I hope will happen with the 9-11 Walks and Talks,” she says. “That we can unite and connect … walking with others helps us carry the burdens of life.”

The Stephens will have a Walks and Talks calendar on their “Our City Cares” website, so that individuals and groups can post their own organized or impromptu walks. The hope is that people who are hurting, who maybe are going through their own tough times, can join in a walk and connect to their broader community. There will be T-shirts available for sale through the “Our City Cares” website, at www.OurCityCares.org, if community members wish to wear the shirts on their organized walks, or people can download the free “Our City Cares” logo online and have it printed on anything they’d like.

The third aspect of the campaign will rely on businesses and churches to keep a stash of “Our City Cares” information cards, on which suicide prevention hotlines and resources have been printed, on hand for community members in need.

The Stephens hope their campaign can send a positive message to community members contemplating suicide, as well as those who have been affected by this complicated loss.

“We’re in an emergent situation,” Sheryl says, pointing to recent numbers showing that nearly two dozen Clark County teenagers have taken their own lives since the beginning of 2017.

“Something needs to be done,” Sheryl says. “People who are in trouble underestimate the pain suicide causes and the unbelievable heartache imparted to those left behind … We hope this campaign can stop someone from making the same tragic decision our son made.”

Sheryl adds that one of the inspirations for her campaign was a woman named Amy Wolff and her “Don’t Give Up” signs campaign. For more information on “Don’t Give Up,” click here. For more information about the Our City Cares campaign, visit www.OurCityCares.org or call 360-921-4364.
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