Mom brings taboo subject into the light

Posted 9/4/10

“It started with a tree and grew from there.” A perfect, purple crabapple tree, to be more specific. And it’s surrounded by beautiful flowers, …

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Mom brings taboo subject into the light


“It started with a tree and grew from there.”

A perfect, purple crabapple tree, to be more specific. And it’s surrounded by beautiful flowers, a bench and a plaque honoring the memory of David King, a Highlands Ranch High School junior who was lost last fall because of something that has become all too common.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in America, and it is seen as one of the most preventable. That’s why parents, students and schools are stepping in with more frequency and bringing a taboo subject into the light.

King’s mother, Sheri Cole, carries the torch for her son. She established the local version of the South Metro Out of the Darkness Walk, an event scheduled for Sept. 11 at Highlands Ranch High School that is meant to call attention to the alarming problem.

Douglas County has been significantly impacted by suicide in recent years. In late 2008, three high school students in the district committed suicide in the same manner within a 24-hour period. Police never found a connection between the cases.

The community was shocked again when a 12-year-old girl took her own life last fall. And earlier this year, after a young college student died of alcohol poisoning, his sister took her life, followed a few months later by their mother.

That mother was part of Cole’s survivor support group and had joined the Out of the Darkness walk committee to help her out. Cole was devastated by the news, and it is one more person who will be remembered during this year’s inaugural event, which has already raised more than $24,000 in donations and has 350 people signed up to participate.

The idea for the walk began when Cole began assembling the pieces of the David James King Memorial Garden, an area of Timberline Park dedicated to the 16-year-old who took his life last September. Cole received help from the Highlands Ranch Metro District, as well as some of David’s closest friends.

“I’m so grateful to them. They’re my lifeline,” she said. “They have been struggling as well.”

Creating the memorial garden and organizing the Out of the Darkness walk has been both difficult and therapeutic for Cole. It brings back memories of her son, a gregarious teen with a buoyant attitude and infectious smile. But she refuses to let his name be forgotten, or allow his death to be in vain.

Cole, along with officials with the Douglas County School District’s health and wellness department, have combined their efforts to bring the subject of suicide to the forefront.

“We are being proactive,” said Michelle Tripp, a communications specialist for the district. “The main point is to start the conversation early with kids. That’s the biggest preventative measure.”

Beginning in 2008, eighth-grade students began learning suicide prevention and intervention tips in Douglas County schools, and that is expected to expand. Highlands Ranch High School, in observance of National Suicide Awareness Week Sept. 5-12 and in honor of King, has implemented new curriculum to address the issue. The “More than Sad” program, which includes an instructional DVD set for kids and teachers, will be shown in classrooms and provide applied suicide intervention skills training for parents, staff and students.

“Talking about suicide is the first step in preventing a tragedy,” says Leslie Clemensen, student wellness coordinator for the school district. “There are warning signs and the district wants to ensure that parents and educators have the tools to start the conversation and keep an open line of communication with their kids.”

Cole says taking care of the brain, the most powerful and complex organ in the body, is essential to preventing suicide attempts. Roughly 90 percent of suicide victims have some form of depression that clinicians believe they can treat. Instead of ignoring a topic that no one wants to discuss, the intent is to make people talk about it. Cole, who has appeared recently on Denver news and radio programs to share her story and promote suicide education, has made it her personal goal to implement suicide intervention curriculum into schools statewide.

“We don’t understand what we don’t know,” she says. “I felt helpless when I first lost David.”

Cole’s drive to organize the walk inspired others who have been affected by suicide. She began visiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website and attended the annual National Survivors of Suicide Day conference through AFSP.

“I learned about the walks and had already talked about planting a tree, and it grew into this,” said Cole, adding she has had the help of a 10-member committee.

Participants in the walk, which already has 30 teams signed up, are encouraged to bring a photo of the loved one they lost. Solidarity and shared experiences have brought survivors together, and Cole has found a survivor support group invaluable.

The school district has added several pages to its website that provide parents and students with the ability to talk with suicidal friends or family members, and the tools to recognize warning signs and intervene.

“We’re raising the bar on losing the stigma,” she said. “We need awareness and people need to know, where do you go for help?“

Administrators with Highlands Ranch High School have expressed interest in making the Out of the Darkness walk an annual event, and Cole says that even though this would have been her son’s graduation year, she is in it for the long haul. She is hoping the walk will be an “end to a means and a means to an end.”

When asked what her son might think of her tireless efforts in his name, she says, “I think David would be saying, ’way to go, mom,’” she said.

To donate or sign up for the free walk, visit Go to the Douglas County School District website at or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at for more tips on suicide intervention.


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