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    'Learn from this'

    [Times photo: Kevin German]
    Bonnie McClelland holds the hands of some of her son's friends for support. Her son Tim killed himself in January. "Not a week goes by when one of them doesn't visit me," she said. "I'm so grateful."

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    By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 26, 2002


    Bonnie McClelland is haunted by the last line of her son's suicide note.

    Timothy McClelland
    "Learn from this," Timothy McClelland, 17, wrote before he hanged himself from his bedroom ceiling fan on Jan. 20. "And help each other."

    Those words echo in Bonnie McClelland's head. She realizes a string of signs could have tipped her to Tim's plans.

    Those words also made her realize that suicide should not be a subject tucked away in dark places. Instead, she thinks it should be a word on the tongue-tips of parents and their children.

    "We tell our kids about the dangers of drugs and sex and alcohol," McClelland said recently. "But we never talk to them about suicide."

    Driven by her son's final message, McClelland, a Seminole resident, is spearheading a program to increase suicide awareness in Pinellas County.

    She plans to launch a chapter of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, a project started eight years ago by a Colorado couple whose 17-year-old son took his life. There are more than 180 chapters around the world, more than half of them formed by family members of suicide victims.

    The program works like this: Volunteers give people Yellow Ribbon cards, which have the phone number for a suicide prevention hotline on them. The cards encourage their holders to take them to a counselor, teacher, parent or friend if they are having suicidal thoughts. The reverse side of the card includes instructions on how to get help.

    McClelland has asked the Pinellas County School Board to help her distribute the cards.

    She told board members she wants to put the cards and brochures about suicide prevention in each student handbook and school bulletin board. She also wants to bring suicide survivors to schools as guest speakers and create Yellow Ribbon clubs in schools to help students during hard times.

    "Teen suicide must stop," she told them. "Teens commit suicide not because they want to die but because they want to end their pain."

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley and several board members said McClelland offered some good suggestions. She will meet with school administrators in coming weeks to discuss her ideas and to learn about what Pinellas schools are already doing to address teen suicide.

    McClelland said many of Tim's friends, up to 50 in all, have pledged to help her hand out cards at local schools, churches and businesses.

    "I truly feel this is a calling for me," McClelland said. "I need to do this."

    * * *

    Dale and Dar Emme know how she feels.

    Back in 1994, their Thursday night ritual was to head to a greasy hamburger joint with friends. Their 17-year-old son, Mike, joined them most of the time, often eating his burger before finishing his mother's.

    One Thursday in September, he didn't come with them. Instead, Mike was at home, dialing six friends to express anguish over a breakup with a girl.

    He said things like: "I screwed up the rest of my life" and "I don't know what else to do" and "I can't do this anymore."

    Among his friends, Mike was the one everyone went to with their problems, so no one thought he could be on the verge of suicide. The last friend he talked to that night told him: "I'll see you tomorrow."

    In the driveway of his family's Colorado home stood Mike's shiny, yellow 1968 Mustang, which he had rescued from a field. He and his father had rebuilt, refurbished and repainted the car. Mike was known for giving rides to anyone who needed a lift.

    Mike climbed into the car. He wrote a note: "Don't blame yourselves, Mom and Dad. I love you." Then he wrote the time on the note: 11:45 p.m.

    At 11:52 p.m., Dale and Dar Emme pulled into their driveway. They know that was the time because Dar glanced at the clock before noticing Mike's yellow Mustang in the driveway. She and Dale felt relieved that Mike was home.

    As they exited the car, Mike's oldest brother, Victor, pulled his Blazer into the driveway. He parked next to the Mustang. As he got out, he looked down and saw Mike lying inside. He had shot himself.

    By the next morning, dozens of Mike's friends and classmates were at the Emme home. Friends asked his mother: "What can we do?"

    She told them: "What you can do for me is, whenever you're at your worst point of pain, don't do this."

    Her message resonated with the young people there. They started bringing other friends to the Emme home to hear her message. Within a few days, kids from all over Denver were converging on the house.

    Some of them took notes. One wrote Mrs. Emme's words on blank business cards.

    Soon, friends and family were mass-producing the cards. They tied yellow ribbons to them in memory of Mike and his beloved Mustang. They placed 500 of the cards at Mike's service, hoping some who attended might take them. The cards were gone before the service was over. Some kids took several and sent them to friends around the country.

    Days later, the Emmes started getting phone calls. A teacher in Wyoming. Someone in New Jersey. A friend of a friend in Arizona.

    They wanted to know: How can I start a Yellow Ribbon program?

    Eight years later, more than 5-million cards have been distributed in the United States, and thousands more in more than 40 countries. The campaign now has six full-time and four part-time employees. The group's Web site has been visited more than 3-million times.

    "We don't ask anyone to be a counselor," Dale Emme said. "We just ask them to be a link."

    And perhaps most important: Organizers say more than 1,500 lives have been saved through the program.

    * * *

    [Times photo: Kevin German]
    From top left, Garrett Smith, 20, Anna Cochran, 19, and Jeremy McGaughey, 18, join, from bottom left, Amanda Pingleton, 20, Bonnie McClelland, Sebastian Urbanczyk, 18, and Luke Thompson, 20, in a group hug after sharing fond memories of Timothy McClelland recently.

    Bonnie McClelland had not heard of the Yellow Ribbon Foundation or Mike Emme until after her own son was dead.

    Unlike Mike, Timothy McClelland had shown some signs that pointed to suicide. He had been involuntarily hospitalized under the state's Baker Act twice after threatening suicide at school.

    He also had heated up a ball point pen with a lighter and burned the words "I am in hell" in his left forearm.

    His mother and his friends thought he was going through a painful stretch. But like Mike Emme, Tim was someone people went to for advice. His friends, many of whom have attempted or thought of suicide themselves, saw him as a buoy in their own troubled personal times.

    One of Tim's greatest frustrations was his dyslexia. His mother says he was a bright boy, but putting pen to paper was painful. His writing was jumbled, his letters slanted and awkward.

    His mother says Tim didn't receive much support at school. When he got in trouble with the police, she said, the justice system treated him no better.

    Tim eventually was expelled from Seminole High School after he was found carrying a knife, which his mother says was for shop class.

    Tim studied for the GED, took it and flunked. He studied and took it again -- and again he flunked. He found out only a few days before his death.

    He also was having girl problems.

    He talked with friend Anna Cochran, 18, about his suicidal thoughts, often at the beach.

    He didn't think anyone cared about him. He would listen to her problems as well, then dispatch helpful advice.

    "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," he said.

    Now, Anna says: "I just wish he would have taken his own advice."

    But Tim covered for himself, telling his mother and others that he wanted to go into the military after Sept. 11. His mother now thinks he was keeping everything inside and pushing everyone away as his world crumbled.

    If he seemed happy, it was because he had already made his decision.

    Tim wrote the note Jan. 20. The words and letters are bent and twig-like, a final signature of a frustrated life dealing with dyslexia.

    "My plan was to push everyone away so I could do this," he wrote, misspelling several words. "My mind and my life is something that you do not want to be in. I hate my life so much that I have to leave. This is no one's fault but myself, so do not blame yourself. I just wanted to tell you that I love you all and I am sorry, and whoever wants my stuff can have it."

    Bonnie woke up about 9 a.m. the next day. She had a cup of coffee and read the newspaper. She prepared to do some painting in her house and talked to a friend on the phone. Then she vacuumed. She brought the cleaner out to the garage.

    She saw her son hanging from the ceiling fan. An electrical cord was around his neck. His knees were bent and dangling above the floor.

    In the next few months, two other Pinellas 17-year-olds, one a friend of Tim's and another an acquaintance, also hanged themselves.

    A friend later told Bonnie about the Yellow Ribbon Foundation. She found information about the group on the Web site and decided she had to bring the program to Pinellas County.

    "That's why I decided to do this," she said. "He left me no choice."

    * * *

    "When you lose a child," Dale Emme says, "there's an important part of you that wants to find out why and what could I have done and what can I do to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else."

    The program has become the Emmes' way of doing that. Had they been more educated about suicide before Mike's death, they would have talked to him about it and perhaps prevented it from happening.

    "Our whole program is about letting people know the resources and that there is help," Dale Emme said. "We feel it is Mike's legacy. We're very proud of what's happened since then."

    They also think it's important to talk about suicide openly, removing it from the dusty shelf of taboos where the subject typically sits.

    "From a survivor's standpoint, we need a voice," Dale Emme said. "And who better to voice how much this hurts and how it impacts our society?"

    The Emmes now travel 75 percent of the year, going to schools and communities across the country to help form suicide prevention task forces. They teach suicide awareness to students and teachers, telling people what warning signs tell of suicidal thoughts.

    Bonnie McClelland thinks her son's legacy will prevent suicides in Pinellas County through the Yellow Ribbon program.

    "I don't want to see anybody else do this," Bonnie said. "I don't want another parent to walk this walk."

    -- Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or tisch@sptimes.com.

    What to look for and why

    Warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide:

    Abrupt changes in personality.

    Giving away possessions.

    Use of drugs or alcohol.

    Depression and lack of self-esteem.

    Withdrawal from people, especially close friends, family members or favorite activities.

    Change in eating and sleeping patterns.

    Chronic pain.

    Restlessness and inability to concentrate.

    Risk factors that could lead someone to suicide:

    Problems with school or the law.

    Breakup of a romance or an unexpected pregnancy.

    A stressful family life.

    Loss of security or fear of others.

    Stress from new situations, such as being at a new school or moving to a new community.

    Failing in school or failing an important test.

    Major loss of a loved one, a relationship or a home.

    Sexual orientation or identity issues.

    If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call:

    1-800-SUICIDE

    (1-800-784-2433).

    -- Source: Yellow Ribbon Foundation

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