July 30th, 2008 at 11:17 am
WACO — As of July 15, five Baylor University students were nearing the end of a 4,500-mile bicycle journey from Texas to Alaska in an effort to raise awareness about the scourge of suicide in their age range.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death of Americans between the ages of 15 to 24, behind homicides and accidents, according to the American Association of Suicidology.
Those statistics came uncomfortably close to reality for Justin Brown, Steve Zimmerman, Andi Nakasone, Kyle Ferguson, and Nathan Lloyd.
Last November, the five students were shocked when a friend confessed that he had tried to suffocate himself. He told them he had attempted to fasten a plastic bag over his head to end it all.
“We looked at each other with our hearts beating in our chests — life pulsing in our veins — and wanting to give him the same feeling,” Brown, co-founder of the Alive Campaign, wrote on the group’s website. “In order to lighten up the mood, one of us said, ‘You know, if you’re going to kill yourself, you might as well do something crazy.’”
They joked about climbing Mount Everest or throwing a water balloon at the dean of the college. Then someone nonchalantly mentioned biking across country. “Something happened and the guys latched onto it,” Brown said.
Attacking the issue
Rather than laughing off the unthinkable, the students attacked the issue head-on. The group vowed that they would start a group on Facebook, the popular social-networking website. When the site reached 250,000 friends, they vowed, they would do something outlandish to draw the public’s attention to the epidemic plaguing America’s youth.
The group started with 100 members at 8:20 p.m. Nov. 4, 2007. They hit the goal of 250,000 members at 7:15 p.m. on Nov. 17.
“We started seeing numbers shoot up, and we didn’t know what to do. We thought we were going to do this next year, but when the money started coming in, we knew we had to do it this year,” Brown said, in a telephone interview. “We weren’t cyclists, we weren’t in shape, but we were about to set forth on a journey. We prayed, ‘If you [God] wanted us to do this, you [have] got to meet us halfway.’”
Thus, the Alive Campaign launched.
The students began to prepare for the grueling trip, cutting sodas from their diets and biking in a local park. “I was always that nagging person, telling them to be practicing,” Brown said.
The team contacted alumni of the Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated school to ask for their participation. Several offered their homes as pit stops for sleep and rest along the route.
The trip and its purpose caught local and national media attention. On March 11, the campaign appeared on MTV’s collegiate network. The students hosted the channel’s music video show, “Dean’s List,” and spoke out against suicide.
Despite the exposure, though, they were having some trouble with fund-raising.
“It was two weeks before we were going to leave and we still didn’t have enough money,” Brown said. “But we decided that we still needed to do this. So we still planned on going, even if we didn’t have the money.”
But then two unexpected donors chipped in, including the Jed Foundation, the nation’s leading organization working to prevent suicide and promote mental health among college students.
On May 15, four of the original students left Baylor’s campus on a journey to help change attitudes about life and promote suicide prevention.
The group also recruited Baylor film student Alyson Erikson, who is filming a documentary about the trip. Although the team asked her to join only a month before they were scheduled to leave, Erikson felt the urgency to support the cause. She e-mailed her mother that “she was going to do this no matter what.”
“She has been a great addition to the team. Before we were just four guys, but now girls are able to relate to her better than we could,” Brown said.
The trip hasn’t been easy. “Every day has a new challenge,” Brown said, “So we take it one day at a time. If you keep looking to the end, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.”
The team gets on the road each day around 5 a.m. The students learned a lesson about the need for getting started in the wee hours near the beginning of the trip, in Abilene. That particular morning, they decided to sleep in a little later than normal.
“We ended up biking nine hours in record high temperature and strong winds,” Brown said.
Their biggest challenge is staying healthy and hydrated each day because of the limited water supply they can carry, as well as their lack of an ability to carry nutritious food supplies. “The only food that was available was fast food, which isn’t good,” Brown said.
Because of the strenuous work, their knees have been their primary source of complaint. Fortunately, only one member has been hurt so far. Ferguson badly strained a muscle, forcing him to follow the rest of the team in a van until he recovered.
Other challenges include finding a place to do laundry and getting a sufficient cell-phone signal to contact parents.
“We call our moms every time we stop,” Brown said. “Sometimes we have to get them to write our blogs for us because we can’t get Internet reception.”
Through aching knees and a few popped tires, the team is getting the hang of things.
“We are just learning along the way, doing things on the fly,” Brown said. “It isn’t recommended, but it’s got us this far.”
Education the key
“Early in the process of organizing Alive, the students as a group took it upon themselves to learn as much as they could about the topic of suicide in order to be better informed advocates for those who had no champion,” noted Susan Matlock-Hetzel, a staff psychologist with the Baylor Counseling Center, in a statement. “As they increased their knowledge, where others would have been overwhelmed with the enormity of the issue, these young leaders only became more inspired to make a significant contribution in giving hope to the hopeless.”
The students became QPR (which stands for “Question, Persuade and Refer”) Certified Gatekeepers. The course teaches participants how to question a peer about suicidal thoughts, persuade them to stay alive, and how and where to refer them to professional help.
“It has been my honor to have been a small part of their journey thus far,” Matlock-Hetzel added. “I have seen them courageously, yet fully aware of the enormity of the task, move forward with bringing attention to an issue that is crippling an entire generation. I have seen them embody leadership, honor and commitment with grace and humility.”
On their trek, team members speak to various schools and churches to help open the eyes of students who suffer from suicidal thoughts.
“They open up their hearts to us. We have heard stories from 12- to 15-year-olds wanting to commit suicide. They share [with team members] the deepest things friends don’t even know,” Brown said.
“We are the richest country in the world, but studies have shown we are the saddest and most depressed,” Brown wrote on the Alive Campaign Web site. “We are lonely with our riches, following the American dream. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids and repeat. The illusion that our lives have limits causes our massive dependency on drugs, materialism and lusts. We are a society with nothing new to give. This trek, this adventure to Alaska, is to prove that humans don’t have limits. You can do anything you set your mind to. Who says you need to go to college to be happy? Who made it the law that you need to be rich? He [their friend] was telling us that he had nothing to live for, so we gave him something to live for.”