The saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” The community of Goffstown, New Hampshire could make that its motto after more than 20 years of committing shared resources to local children. Twenty three years ago, Goffstown was a highly-publicized microcosm of a disturbing, national increase in adolescent suicide rates. At the time, “local clergy had quietly been talking with community leaders and school leaders about a lack of assets in town,” recalls Rev. Bill Exner, who was the rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Goffstown. He is recently retired and still lives in town. “Kids were not happy and healthy. We got together and committed to be vigilant.”
The commitment made in October, 1993, is still strong today in the the Goffstown Area Youth Forum. The monthly meeting of school and community leaders, clergy, police, fire officials, representatives from the library and the YMCA – a total of 26 different entities – takes the temperature of children and families in town and participants seek to address immediate needs that could make a child’s life better and prevent the circumstances that can lead to a suicidal state of mind. GAYF, which Rev. Exner co-founded, is now a service of Crispin’s House Coalition for Youth which works directly in youth suicide prevention. The concept, based in research from Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, identifies and draws on the assets that a community needs to raise healthy kids.
“We’re smarter together and pointing fingers is not a way to heal,” says Rev. Exner who can recall several times when those combined resources has helped a family and turned a child’s life around. In one case, a school nurse noticed that some kids didn’t have coats. “Clergy stepped in to work with the family and discover, privately, that other things were going on. We were then able to work with Habitat for Humanity and St. A’s (St. Anselm College) to put their house back together.”
Other resources range from local drug stores for prescription help and the Catholic Medical Center Parish Nurse Program at St. Matthew’s, St. Lawrence and Goffstown Congregational Churches for medical care to training through Crispin’s House for parents, teachers, police, and others who interact with adolescents. Churches and schools work together to write grants for after school and summer programs. “A lot of what we would ideally like to do we can’t because of lack of funding,” laments Rev. Exner. “On the other hand, we have one another and all that we can bring to each other.”
Having Crispin’s House in town has also been a tremendous asset, believes Rev. Exner, which he credits with saving at least two lives in the last few years. Resources for youth suicide prevention are available there for families and kids who have concerns. But, “the real issue isn’t singling out an individual who’s in real deep trouble – we can help them, absolutely – the real issue is preventing the situation that makes the family and youth feel isolated and alone.”
More than two decades after the headlines about youth suicide, the focus is on a slightly older demographic, veterans in their 20s and 30s returning from combat in the Middle East. Rev. Exner believes the same concept of community support can help them, too. “The Yankee individual mentality is something we hang onto around here but it’s not good for our health. We are wired to be a part of a community.”