University student Madison Fertig first met Kale Williams in preschool and she’s happy to reminisce about her friend.
But Fertig said she has learned to keep a few tissues within reach. She never knows when a memory or situation will trigger tears.
Williams died by suicide in February.
“It just hits you at the weirdest times,” said Fertig, who is one of four speakers set to speak at Red Deer’s first Teen Empowerment Day on Saturday, Nov. 23, in the Cenovus Learning Centre at Red Deer College.
Nicole and Dean Williams, Kale’s parents, and Notre Dame High School teacher A.J. Mahoney will also speak about the impact of suicide.
“I’m going to relive a lot of the feelings I felt, but it will be good to share,” said Fertig, 18, of Red Deer.
Williams, a Grade 12 student at Notre Dame High School, was one of six local youth who committed suicide about a year ago, shoving the issue of teen suicide into the spotlight. The deaths prompted youth to join together to publicly acknowledge the taboo subject on a Facebook page where they sought solace and help.
The latest community response has come from a Red Deer mother, Nicole Maurier, 39, who organized Teen Empowerment Day after talking to her teenage daughter and her friends and learning about all the challenges that can stress teens, sometimes to their limits.
“I just felt as a parent, and as someone living in the community, I thought what can I do to make a difference or to contribute — out came Teen Empowerment Day,” Maurier said.
Teen Empowerment Day is open to Central Alberta teens, ages 13 to 17. Admission is free and will include a free lunch and T-shirt.
The event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the facility can hold 500 people.
Parents are also welcome to attend, but lunch will not be provided to them.
Maurier said she wanted to make it easy for students to access speakers who could make a difference in their lives.
Alarmed by the rate of suicide among teens in the area over the past year, she decided suicide would be a major topic of the day with four of the eight speakers addressing the issue.
“I just wanted teens to hear from a different perspective on how suicide impacts a variety of different people.”
Maurier said talking about suicide will create an opening for healing and build connections to available resources.
Fertig said she didn’t hesitate when asked to speak at Teen Empowerment Day.
She felt so alone in her grief over her friend’s death despite the efforts of family and friends.
“All I wanted to have happen to me in that situation was have someone share their stories. I just wanted someone to help me. The only thing I wanted to do coming out of that bad situation is to help other youth.”
Fertig shared classes with Williams the semester he died.
“My first class back was the worst. It was like: why are things still going on? Don’t they realize what’s happened?”
She considered Williams a friend for life.
“He had this special ability. Life gets busy, but he always made you feel important and that’s what I always loved about him.”
She said he was the one who people went to when they had problems.
“A normal kid. A happy kid. A kid with lots of friends. It just flips your whole world upside down to know that person was so unhappy,” said Fertig, who helped Williams’ family pick out the music for his funeral.
She said the healing process for her began at school. Teachers and administration allowed students to hang out in the school’s gathering area when emotions were raw that first week.
“The school was so good about that. Good in ways that I could not imagine,” Fertig said.
Other things that helped were the fundraising projects that students organized to raise money in memory of Williams for the Grad Service Project, which just happened to be raising money for Red Deer’s Suicide Information and Education Services.
The goal was to raise $45,000, but students managed to pull in more than $129,000.
The Facebook page that gave teens a place to talk about suicide was locked by youth organizers on Nov. 4 to prevent anyone else from leaving messages other than organizers. The page had “done its part,” according to a recent post from organizers.
“I think they did shut it down at the right time so people can still remember it as a safe place,” said Fertig, who has watched it take a turn for the worse thanks to “Internet trolls” abusing the site.
But Fertig would like to see more initiatives to keep suicide awareness in the forefront.
“I just want everyone to know you’re not alone. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask,” said the University of Calgary student.
Another issue that will be tackled at Teen Empowerment Day is drunk driving.
Chad Olsen, who chose to drink, get behind the wheel, and ended up killing a Red Deer couple in 2010, will speak to teens.
“Whether that creates controversy or not, that doesn’t matter. I just want teens to be able to hear there’s another side to drinking and driving, and the consequences. Hopefully that will be a little bit of an eye-opener,” Maurier said.
She said social agencies will have booths set up at event and work will be underway to make Teen Empowerment Day an annual event. A committee that includes youth will help choose future speakers.
Community sponsors are helping to cover the costs of this year’s event, but Maurier said more are needed. Motivational speakers Shane Feldman of Toronto and Darren Jacklin of Vancouver have both waived their speaking fees.
They will be joined by Lyle Cheney, a local martial arts teacher, who is donating his time to teach students some basic self-defence moves.
For Teen Empowerment Day details and to register, visit teenempowermentday.eventzilla.net.