Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees announced on Wednesday that his office’s Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program is now one of the many funds under the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies’ nonprofit umbrella, a move he said will streamline fundraising efforts and help ensure the program’s long-term financial health.
“I think it’ll be a strong partnership to reduce the amount of suicides, to prevent them from happening and to support our families here in Cambria County,” Lees said during a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Lees said that it costs his office about $2,000 per year to operate the “much-needed” program, which has been presented to more than 43,000 students, military personnel, senior citizens and other people in Cambria County since 2002. Much of that money is donated by students, funeral directors and family members of suicide victims, he added.
“This program was started for a reason,” Lees said. “Cambria County was seeing a tremendous increase in teenage suicide. It was the second-leading cause of death among teenagers when we started this program. I’m proud to say that those numbers have come down. This program has saved many lives over the years.
“Unfortunately, we have seen an increase among suicide, especially among our military men and women, and our office has been reaching out to those agencies and trying to get the message out that it’s OK to ask for help and to reinforce that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. That’s the message we want to send.”
In addition to that educational presentation, which is based on the national Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, the Cambria County program also includes an annual remembrance ceremony during which those who have committed suicide are honored and memorialized by their loved ones.
“Losing a loved one is probably one of the most difficult times in someone’s life,” Lees said. “However, when we lose someone to suicide, it raises the emotional level for the families left behind – that question, ‘Why?’ ”
Mike Kane, Community Foundation of the Alleghenies president, described the Yellow Ribbon Program during Wednesday’s press conference as a “particularly significant” community cause “because of the educational and awareness efforts needed around the issue of suicide and suicide prevention.”
“The foundation works with partners like this in order to, obviously, at the basic level, help raise and steward the funds that support the effort,” he said. “But I think there’s something larger there, too.
“It shows that the broader community is engaged in an issue – that we’re all working together to address an issue like this.”
“Most everyone has been touched by suicide … in some fashion or another,” Kane added, “and the idea for a fund like this to help raise awareness, to help people and families with their responses to these tragedies, is really meaningful. … This effort is really important because it puts a whole county-wide focus on it, so we’re really glad and grateful to be a part of it and to help in any way we can.”
Lees said he is “very pleased” to have the support of Ed Cernic, Cambria County controller, for the move. Cernic himself said during the press conference that he thinks the maneuver “will help move this program to the next level and make sure it’s stable for many, many years to come.”
Cernic said the change will likely provide the program with a “more direct” source of funding and cut down on the amount of red tape through which donors have to jump.
Further, he said, the increased visibility that the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies will provide for the program “will be a great asset.”
“The Community Foundation has done a lot of great work with other funds,” he said.
“And this is going to be one step further to give (the Yellow Ribbon Program) the visibility and the stabilization that it needs to go on for a long, long time.”
Kane and Kecia Bal, communications officer for the foundation, said that anyone who wishes to support the Yellow Ribbon Program can call the foundation or donate online by visiting www.cfalleghenies.org/funds.
The relevant fund is listed on the foundation’s website as “Cambria County Coroner’s Office Yellow Ribbon Program Fund.”
“As somebody whose family has been touched by suicide,” Kane said, “I can tell you that one of the hardest things that you look for is to somehow find meaning, and one of the ways you can do it is by helping other people. This fund becomes a vehicle to do that through the work of the coroner’s office.”
Chuck Mahon, deputy coroner, said on Wednesday that any agency or organization that is interested in hosting a presentation of the Yellow Ribbon Program should contact the Cambria County Coroner’s Office.
Other Community Foundation for the Alleghenies funds related to suicide prevention include the Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force Fund, the Laurel Highlands Semicolon Project Fund and the S.H.I.E.L.D. 911 Fund.
‘An opportunity to connect’
Mahon said that the 15th annual Yellow Ribbon Program remembrance ceremony is scheduled to be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 13, at Berwind Wayside Festival Park in St. Michael.
He asked those who plan to attend to show up approximately half an hour early.
“What this is,” Mahon said, “is it gives us an opportunity to connect people with support, allow them to network and it gets the word out there that there are people that care. …
“We encourage everyone, if you have been touched by suicide, if you know somebody that has taken their life, please join us.”
The program will include music, speakers and a “flower release” in the river that flows through the park.
“In past years, we’ve done a balloon release, but last year we decided to change the method of remembering the loved ones that are lost in a more environmentally friendly way,” Mahon said.