At the Children’s Memorial Garden in Waterfront Park, it’s not uncommon for walkway stones likening specifically named children to angels. The garden is dedicated to the memory of children who died long before death had a right so much as to glance their way. Winged, memories of the children can soar, and maybe give their loved ones a break from the deepest sorrow any parent can ever know.
Monday afternoon three cheerful Indian Trail Middle School eighth grade students–Erin Robinson, 14, Olivia Reynolds, 13, and Kristina Cabada, 14, sat in the garden with imitation wings attached to their backs–along with their learning service coach, Dana Hausen, to speak about how they plan to raise awareness about teen depression and suicide: how they hope to stop the memory of another child taking flight at the garden by keeping that child from taking the fateful last step.
They call themselves the Guardian Angels. They’re one of two Indian Trails Service Learning groups doing projects in conjunction with Palm Coast’s annual Arbor Day celebration on May 3.
“We’re trying to help kids through depression, if they have it or if they’re having suicidal thoughts,” Robsinson said, “because we want to be there for them if other people aren’t. So we just kind of came up with the name like we’re their guardians.”
In service learning classes, Flagler County school students join teams and pick an issue that they will investigate as a year-long project. Each week, leadership roles shift so “we can benefit from the different views,” Robinson says.
For the Arbor Day portion of their project, the angels’ plan is to raise enough money from that occasion’s One Mile Flutter Foam Fun Run/Walk proceeds to buy a $78 walkway stone for the memorial garden. The walkway would be dedicated to those who have lost their battle with teen depression.
In the last 12 months, two local high school students committed suicide. In December, it was Dalton Coxwell, a Matanzas High School freshman. In February, it was Alexandria Rodriguez, a senior at a Volusia County school. She had attended Matanzas High School until Thanksgiving and, before that, Flagler Palm Coast High School.
Coxwell, who had attended Indian Trails the year before, committed suicide the day before one of the angels’ presentations. On the day the angels were scheduled to talk, teachers told them they had to cancel, because the topic was too sensitive and too many of the students had known Coxwell. They also had to cut out some of the material about suicide until recently and focus more on depression.
Cabada says: “We still want to spread awareness, and if someone’s feeling suicidal, someone has to be there for them and, if something like that is going to happen, we have to try and avoid it. And teaching them what the steps are to approach someone like that or how to know if someone’s depressed or suicidal—I thought the school should let us teach kids about that.”
Between 1980 and 1995, the number of white children committing suicide rose 120 percent nationally. For African-American children, it was a 223 percent increase. “This year and 1980 are completely different,” with social media perhaps playing a large role, Cabada says.
The group has given PowerPoint presentations to Indian Trails health classes about symptoms and signs of teen depression: “how you can tell if your friend has it,” or someone else you know, “so that you can try and help them with it,” Reynolds says.
The angles also talked about how to help endangered teens. “Either going to an adult, or the guidance counselors, talking to your parents, because sometimes your friends don’t want to talk about it, because it’s something that you’re not really proud of, if you battle teen depression,” says Robinson.
Cabada personally struggled with depression in the past, though she still doesn’t really like talking about it. “There was this period of time when I was just terribly sad for a long time and I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t very hungry. I don’t think any of my friends really noticed it. Well, maybe some of them,” she says, trailing off for a second. “It was hard to even laugh. Sometimes, I just had to fake-smile and it just became a bigger issue. Sometimes, I would think things that I’d never think before. I just wish someone would’ve just noticed I was depressed, and I could’ve gotten out of it more quickly than I actually did.”
Suicide is an issue close to Hausen, though she’s worked with many different service learning classes over the last year. Hausen, who also teaches science at Indian Trails, lost both her mother and grandmother to suicide. As for the girls, she says, “I’ve watched them mature in their views over time and really sensitize to the issue.”
Carol Mini, Palm Coast’s urban forester, says the Arbor Day collaboration is starting to become a regular fixture. Last year the city partnered with a group dedicated to leukemia support. Proceeds from the race were put toward goody bags which went out to children with leukemia in Florida hospitals.
“Arbor Day is a community and family event and I think that’s why it lends itself so well to their cause,” Mini says of the angels. “It’s about supporting our neighbors, our friends, our family. And that’s what Arbor Day is all about. Yes, it’s about trees and it’s about being green but it’s also about being healthy and having a healthy lifestyle and being happy in where you live and what you do.”
The angels won the status of grand champions at the Future Problem Solvers state competition this year, which emphasizes creative thinking and proposing a vision for the future. They are trying to raise the $5,000 to attend the International Problem Solvers competition in Iowa.
For information about how you can help the Guardian Angels, visit their Go Fund page here. For information about Arbor Day 2014 and its activities, see Palm Coast’s page.