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Local mother focuses beacon of experience on national problem

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Donna Witsell (Melody Jameson Photo)
SUNDANCE – It’s been just a year this weekend since Charlie and Donna Witsell lost their only child.

For 13-year-old Hope, blond, blue-eyed, so proud in that gold-embroidered, dark blue Future Farmer of America jacket, the pain is all gone. For her parents and a large, surrounding, extended family, though, it’s still very fresh.

On that September Saturday, Hope, barely a teenager, joined the ranks of a growing number of American youngsters: she apparently took her own life. That was the autopsy finding, although the family still wrestles with acceptance of such a fact in connection with a girl supported by loving family, committed to healthy interests, making good grades; an active, involved, outgoing youngster on the cusp of womanhood.

Nonetheless astoundingly, suicide is the sixth leading cause of death among five- to 14-year-olds, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. In the 15 to 24 age bracket, the rate shoots up to the third leading cause. It happens today all over the country, in families of every social and economic strata, sometimes with simply no discernable forewarning. Statistically, the U.S. numbers are in the thousands annually.

Diminutive Donna Witsell wants you to know this; she wants you to be aware for the sake of your child and another’s child, she wants you to recognize what has to be considered a national disgrace and its causes, she wants you to give freely of the smiles and the kind words that can alter the course of a young life. And, she’s willing to use a very private anniversary to underscore the importance of a public event.

At 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 10, the full color feature film titled “To Save A Life” will be shown free of charge in the sanctuary of the Maranatha Church of God in downtown Ruskin. Rated PG-13, the film is not suitable for very young children, but every parent and every adult responsible for guiding teenagers should see it, Witsell asserts with the confidence of personal experience.

“To Save a Life” features a large cast of teens who look as if they were filmed in the halls at East Bay or Lennard or Riverview High and at typical Hillsborough hangouts that attract adolescents caught up in the inevitable learning process leading usually to adulthood. But in the film, as sometimes in life, the maturing process gets short circuited by death; an entirely unnecessary death stemming from the consuming teenage need to be popular, to conform, to find a peer group.

It is, in fact, art mimicking life, Witsell says; a spot-on portrayal of the sometimes brutal, unforgiving, contemporary teen culture in and out of the nation’s school systems of which too many busy parents remain blissfully unaware.

The film, of course, hits close to the Witsell home. That school year before Hope’s 13th summer, the dedicated FFAer who entered every possible competition, eagerly consumed agricultural knowledge, dreamed of work with plants, made an error in judgment, her mother acknowledges. Like many girls embarking on adolescence, in the grip of hormone changes, Hope also closely followed teen celebrity crazes, absorbing the entertainment industry’s sexually suggestive bombardment. She transmitted an inappropriate self portrait via cell phone to a boy she liked. Another girl apparently found the photo on his phone and broadcast it.

A prolonged storm of ridicule, name calling, shunning and other forms of bullying ensued from Hope’s Shields Middle School classmates. As the abuse continued, the family rallied around, visited the school, sought to buffer Hope. Adults counseled the childishness would pass in time, they tried to distract her with family activities, they offered a change of school. “We kept asking her what we could do for her,” Witsell recalls, “but she just kept saying she was okay; she couldn’t give up the FFA program at Shields.”

Outwardly, Hope hid her pain. Inwardly, she was in torment. When the 2009 school year resumed that August she returned to Shields, trying to tough out the rejection that among unthinking, immature, conforming teens can be wildly contagious. The accumulation took its toll, overwhelming a 13-year-old’s bright future with the dark clouds of an intolerable present.

Witsell has choice words for school personnel who, she says, failed to share all that they knew about the situation.

Men and women, Witsell observes, grieve such a gut-wrenching loss differently. Her way is to warn others with all the passion of her experience. In the last year, she’s given many interviews, made numerous appearances, spoken from pulpits – always entreating parents to pay attention, ask questions, listen closely. Witsell also now devotes long hours to listening to and talking with teenagers on Facebook even as she conducts an outreach ministry for young girls she calls “Warriors for Hope.”

And life goes on in the Witsell household, despite the sadness. There are work responsibilities to be discharged, chores demanding attention, family interactions that cannot be ignored. She and Charlie try to give each other space and time to grieve privately, she says, as they stand ready to comfort one another whenever that helps, too. It’s a circumstance she wants others to avoid.

Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson

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