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Daily Journal
     January 30, 2020      #51-30 KDJ
 
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Kankakee Junior High eighth-graders Damarys Vargas, her twin sister Noemi, right, and Carla Limas work on a design concept for their community project Wednesday afternoon. The trio decided to create signs with suicide prevention quotes and met with the mayor to plan for signage along the downtown br

Suicide prevention as a school project 

By Lee Provost
lprovost@daily-journal.com


KANKAKEE — Math, science and history are far from the only subjects being targeted at the Kankakee Junior High School.

Three eighth-grade girls are taking on the ambitious project of helping to deter those who may be contemplating taking their own lives.

Within the school’s International Baccalaureate program — started only two years ago — students Carla Limas, 13, and 14-year-old twins Damarys and Noemi Vargas began taking on the sensitive project.

The program encourages participating eighth-graders to address some type of community-based project. The work is to be completed after school hours and is supervised by a teacher.

Popular on the East Coast and in Texas, International Baccalaureate programs are making their way into Midwestern schools.

This trio came up with the project almost immediately. Their interest was natural, they noted, because they know of others who have struggle with issues leading them to consider suicide as an option of escape.

Social studies teacher Peter Bretzlaff, a 19-year KJHS teacher who helps students develop concepts for the program, said this threesome jumped out with the concept from the start and have been developing it since early November.

The girls’ ultimate goal is to place signage on a main bridge in Kankakee — either the West Court Street bridge over the Kankakee River or the South Schuyler Avenue bridge — or paint messages of hope or help on the bridge walkways.

Kankakee has experienced suicides where victims have plunged to their deaths from the Schuyler bridge.

The signs would offer words of encouragement and resources where help can be found.

“Our hope is someone in need sees a sign and calls someone for help,” Limas said.

MAYOR LENDING HELP

They have already presented their concept to the Kankakee City Council and have had discussions with Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong. They initially wanted to have a telephone placed on a bridge so those thinking of ending their life could call a suicide hotline for help.

The mayor said placing a phone on a bridge would be difficult. She helped the girls refine their idea.

“I’m very moved by the three young ladies showing an interest in addressing suicide in our community,” Well-Armstrong said. “I have stated all along that everyone can do something to make their community better and these girls demonstrate that youth can play an impactful role in their community.”

The bridges are property of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

“I don’t think they realize that even the city has to get permits and follow guidelines to work on bridges,” the mayor said. “... Once they have a clear understanding of their project, I am committed to figuring out how to say ‘yes’ to this important work they wish to do to serve our community.”

‘MAKE LEARNING RELEVANT’

On a recent Wednesday in the classroom of junior high teacher Cynthia Harris, who is assisting the girls, the group worked on potential messages which could be placed at or on the bridge.

The message they were focused on this day read, “Never let a stumble in the road be the end of your journey. Every step matters.”

“Sometimes people with problems don’t know there is always a chance to get back up,” Damarys said looking up from the poster board.

Noemi added, “So many people don’t see their own beauty. We know of people who have tried this. It’s a very personal issue.”

The girls are inseparable at school, Harris noted. While the twins have the obvious connection, she said the three seem to know what each other is thinking and often they communicate with an expression or a simple gesture.

She said their connection is remarkable and the focus and dedication they bring to the project is equally impressive.

“The fact they are working on a project of this magnitude doesn’t surprise me. Not with these three. This is baby steps for what I see these three doing in the future,” she noted.

By the end of the school year, each student group will be required to present its project to the 140 students who comprise the baccalaureate program.

Some projects will have positive outcomes and some won’t, but the idea is to think them through and hopefully bring them to fruition — whether that be this school year or the next or the one after that.

“This is not just a school project,” Bretzlaff said. “The idea is to get the hands-on experience dealing with obstacles and still get things done. The goal is to make learning relevant to how it applies in the real world.”

The goal is to get students beyond classroom walls, to have interaction with people outside of the school.

And the project should be something which brings passion to the group.

“The project shouldn’t feel like a chore. I want it to be something in which the students feel they can make a difference,” he said. “These projects can become part of who they are.”

What could be more special than developing something that could save a life?

Daymarys said the project’s mission is simple.

“Our goal is to let everyone know their story doesn’t have to end like that. We want them to know there are people out there who love them. We want to help everybody.”

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Lee Provost
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