[Ed. note: By the time Teressa Baldwin, a recent graduate of Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, was 10 years old, she knew six people who had committed suicide. After her boyfriend committed suicide, she turned her grief into a campaign to prevent suicides among Native Alaskans, and founded Hope4Alaska. She gave permission to republish this amazing speech that she gave at a meeting to 350 members of the Alaska Association of Student Government last spring.]
I was always told to say that I am honored to be here and also that if the words I speak offend you, I apologize.
I am about to embark on my life journey. Not to make you feel bad for me, but I would like you to know how suicide affects one person. I would also like you to know that I may cry during this speech but this is part of my healing journey, and in the end I will put myself back together.
Before I start my speech, I would like all of you to think of one person who supports you. A person who accepts you for who you are, someone who knows that you are amazing and can stand by you one hundred percent of the time; a listener.
I can tell you that this is the hardest lesson to learn for me and for many in Alaska. Some of you thought of someone right away, a quality you need to show others because I know some of you couldn’t think of just one person. But I can tell you that, no matter who you are, you have support because you are here today. Someone believed in you.
Growing up, I felt that I didn’t have support for anything I did and I didn’t realize that I had support until this year. In April of last year, I gave a speech on suicide prevention. I said that my goal was to save one hundred people from committing suicide. Now I stand in front of you, one year older, as someone who has reached out to more than 6,000 Alaskan teens, 24 senators, the U.S. Congress, six governors, four states, and my message even reached President Obama’s desk.
I stand here before you as a girl who didn’t think I had support, and no goals going into high school. I didn’t know if I could go to college. But I did find my one goal, and it changed my everyday life and helped me start my campaign out of respect for my boyfriend and family members I had lost to suicide.
How many of you have heard my personal story? For those of you who have not, I am a suicide survivor. I grew up around suicide, Alaska’s suicide rate is two times the national average. At a young age I was exposed to suicide. My uncle, who was a father figure to me and perhaps was the only father figure I had, committed suicide. I was five, and this event is one of the earliest childhood memories I hold.
I was five and already considered a suicide survivor. I lived in rural Alaska, in a village called Kotzebue, one of the many places in Alaska that is known for suicides. In fact, before the age of ten I had known six people who committed suicide. It wasn’t until high school that I had the opportunity to move out of Kotzebue.
I thought I would leave behind the isolation and thoughts of being depressed. But I can tell you first hand that you cannot run away from suicide. It affects every corner of Alaska. It was always there as an option, and I wasn’t the only one thinking that.
In 2010, 142 different families lost someone to suicide in Alaska. In 2010, I had also lost my boyfriend to suicide. When he took his own life, I found myself at a crossroads. I was a 16-year-old who was so confused, and lost. Where was I to go after I had lost someone so important? I believe and still do believe that he was my lifesaver, my motivation to live, my other half. My boyfriend still remains the most important person in my life. I struggle accepting that he is gone and it has almost been two years. He was my support and I didn’t even see it.
I started my campaign, Hope4Alaska, so that others can realize that suicide is not the answer and so that people will not have to go through the same pain I feel now. My goals, campaign, and life are now dedicated to him.
I started Hope4Alaska when I was seventeen. You may or may not know that I have been traveling around the state of Alaska nearly every weekend this year. I am currently a senior in high school trying to get into college, and keep my grades up. I have missed over sixty days of school. I want to bring to you a perspective of my life and then tell you about my journey.
I gave up my senior year, student council, cheerleading, NHS. I have sacrificed my senior year to do one thing: spread the message on suicide prevention. I took a path that was the hardest path of my life. I spoke to anyone who wanted to hear my message. This year was the hardest year of my life, emotionally and physically.
Throughout my journey with Hope4Alaska I preached that if you share your story, others will be affected, a message that has been passed on to me from Barb Franks who is on the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. I found myself through others’ stories.
Since April, I have heard 156 stories — 156 untold stories have been revealed because sharing your story can help others realize their own. I received permission from a few people to pass on what they have grown up with.
Before I get into this, I want to tell you that I have learned our state needs more than just suicide prevention. Yet, in order to end the high rates that Alaska is facing — with suicide, abuse, rape and homelessness — we need to grow leaders that are willing to fight for those who cannot speak their stories.
The first story is about a boy who I grew up with. We went to elementary school together and then he disappeared. He was one of those boys who would tease you on the playground, and tag you even if you didn’t want to play tag. At first I didn’t recognize this boy. It’s been years. I ran into him while I was volunteering at a teen home. He was homeless. It turned out that he has been homeless for years.
I look at myself today and say that how can someone survive that? Seventeen years old, no home, no parents. He told me that growing up was hard, but that living on the streets was better than going back to Kotzebue. He has tried to commit suicide and he says it was for one reason, because he felt hopeless.
Another story that I heard was from a young girl at a middle school. This girl was in the seventh grade. She was this petite little girl, blonde wavy hair and green eyes. You would not have guessed that she grew up watching her mom being abused. The girl told me that her step-dad used to abuse her mom when he became intoxicated. She grew up isolating herself and not telling anyone this because she thought if she talked to someone about it that she would get her mother in trouble and she would get abused even more. Her mother committed suicide last year.
This girl is now on the healing path, and some may not know what she has gone through. Now she is one of the strongest people I know. She may be little but she has a big story.
This next story is about one of my current best friends. He too grew up watching his mother being abused. I cannot tell you how happy he is now, but he grew up in a family that was not accepting of who he was and a community that didn’t support him. He is gay. This wonderful person was torn down because of his sexual orientation. Part of his story is about how he liked a guy and all of a sudden people shut him out, didn’t accept him and he felt miserable. He had a hard childhood, and he is struggling with coming out, or even thinking about telling his family. He contemplated suicide because he felt alone.
I am not telling you these stories for you all to feel depressed. I am telling you these stories because it is time for all of us to know that it does happen. When you belong, you feel safe and accepted and you become yourself. Our current environment with rape, suicide and abuse isn’t a safe environment. There are people at your school who can’t be themselves because they don’t have a safe environment.
The definitions for these words will never change, yet how we combat these words is where the change can happen. Society tries to hide these things that happen every day to people you may know.
All three of these stories have things in common. One is that they all shared with me messages of hope and why they are still here. That is, they had someone there to tell them that their life mattered, that someone cares for them and they have love.
It is true that there are people living today off a smile, or a wave from a teacher. You may have the choice to be happy, go to the movies, to become a leader, but others don’t. They live lives that most cannot imagine.
I am happy we have you all as leaders, because we need people to fight for the unspoken. For those of you who know me know that I was once suicidal, but the one thing that kept me alive were the lingering smiles of others. Just as other times, I would like to point out that it is not hard to make someone’s day; we need to pull together as a generation to show others they have support. A lot of people need life, and we are here to give it to them.
It has been proven that if you talk about an issue and make it known, and spread awareness that the epidemic problem can be solved and lives can be saved. Alaska held the highest suicide rates in the nation for almost our whole lives. Now, we are number two in the nation, because of how many people have pulled together and made it an everyday awareness.
We are all leaders, and are capable of spreading awareness. Leadership doesn’t always mean guiding a group of people, it also means to create opportunities that you may not have and turn them into passion.
We live in a country where we are allowed to start something big, and others around us can benefit from it. We live in a country when one bad thing happens, you have the support to speak up and show others what we can do about it.
Losing my boyfriend always got me to think about how I can show my respect towards him, how I can show that I cared about him after he was already gone. Personally, I didn’t think that I gave him the support he needed. I could have told him that I cared for him, that I was always there for him. But I didn’t. It’s a mistake that replays in my head day by day and probably will for the rest of my life.
As someone who now has to be called a suicide survivor, I have learned that if you start something, your support will fall into place. Although it might not seem like it at first, you have to believe in yourself before others start believing you. Leadership is when you believe in yourself before others believe in you.
I started my campaign and I would tell my good friends that I wanted to travel and speak about how suicide has affected my life, and you know what they said to me? “Where will you get the money? What is your message? How are you going to get schools to accept talking about suicide?”
All were reasonable questions and at the time I didn’t know. Because two years ago, no school wanted to talk about suicide. Many schools believed that if you talked about suicide to their children that their children become suicidal. But look where we are now. Suicide isn’t a taboo subject anymore. We have schools sending emails left and right trying to get a suicide prevention activity started in their school. Not only have we taken the steps to become a greater state in talking about suicide, we now have supporters of youth just like yourself.
The proof is right here. After fighting for my ideas, BP and Conoco Phillips came together and sponsored Hope4Alaska. They gave a 17-year-old $25,000 to spread awareness.
This is where you can be, don’t question yourself and don’t think twice about what you want to do. If it helps you and it can change others, you are already on the right track. Leadership is not second-guessing yourself.
My campaign will not always be here. Or maybe it will be, depending on the goals and steps I take throughout college. My point is: You are all young leaders about to start a journey that takes you through a lifetime of goals. Who knows? You may be standing here next year. But that isn’t going to happen unless you become a leader and believe in yourself.
If you start something, and believe in yourself, set goals and want to help people, I guarantee that it is going to be a rough road. But once you look back at it, there is no greater accomplishment.
This campaign has given me life. The stories I have heard and the people I have met have given me life. Now I am on to college and about to embark on a new journey. It’s hard for me personally to give up my campaign. In other words, this is my baby. It is growing up — 6,000 students later and an emotional roller coaster, I am ready to transition.
My passion will always live on, and hopefully the messages that I have shared with you give you motivation to find something you are passionate about. This is an end to a chapter of my life, or maybe the beginning. When you do become passionate, and feel the need to carry on, and to do something about it, I guarantee you that you may feel let down, used, forgotten, at times even a failure.
Yet one thing you need to show is, your vulnerability. I was given a key to success and I am ready to give it to you. This shows others you are strong enough to tell your story, to be strong and say this needs to stop. Yet, showing your vulnerability can be scary. But I reassure you that there will be no greater accomplishment.
Thanks to our elders, teachers, and parents for teaching us morals and culture that we will bring into the future. We are given leadership. You have supported because you are here. They have put so much faith in our hands and an unsaid amount of opportunities that we will use to combat our problems today. We shall walk into the future together so that the generations to come will not face the problems of today.
The experience we have now may not be the experience we have for our future generations. I am hoping our generation can stand tall against suicide so that our children will know that suicide isn’t the answer. Although I do not know if I saved 100 lives, I can tell you that my journey to save them is just starting.
We are young. Take advantage of all opportunities, become involved. Leadership has many different definitions; how you interpret it will help you determine where you want to end up.
As a leader you have the support to start something before it becomes a problem.
As a leader you can start something because you are passionate.
As a leader you can start something because you believe in helping your friends.
And then once you start something, you will realize that this is where leadership begins.
During her journey around the state, Teressa visited 20 different high schools to pass on her message. She will start college at UC San Diego in the Fall. She has found other teens to carry on the work she began at Hope4Alaska.