By Brooke Curley
SAFFORD – In light of the dismaying events of suicide and unrest within the Gila Valley, Safford School Superintendent Ken VanWinkle has called for a community meeting.
Rallying under the cry of, “See something, say something, do something,” VanWinkle is working with the city of Safford, multiple local police and sheriff departments, and the ministerial association to discuss what can be done to help the residents of the Gila Valley in these troubling times.
The public is invited to the David M. Player Center for the Arts from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 25. VanWinkle stresses that it is time to band together to recognize and prevent any future loss of life within the community.
“We’re working on battling destructive decisions,” VanWinkle said. “How are we going to help people to see that there are options, and how they can cope, and how we can be there for each other? This community meeting, we’re inviting people that want to come. We’re basically going to talk about hope, about coming together and working together.”
VanWinkle addressed the fact that since the student suicides, individuals within the community have pointed accusing fingers at the school and faculty. However, VanWinkle stressed that the school faculty are not professionally trained suicide counselors, but are local teachers and staff who love their students.
“We are here as teachers and educators who love kids,” VanWinkle said. “Our concern right now is, let’s come together folks instead of pointing fingers. Let’s make a difference. Right now, if you talk to police, we have far more adults taking their lives than we do students. It’s a huge issue.”
VanWinkle, like several others, has been prompted to act by bringing the community together to address the heartbreaking issues. By bolstering community awareness, VanWinkle, along with other leaders in the community, hope to end the onslaught of tragic decisions.
“We feel like we have to do something,” VanWinkle said. “We’re going to talk about (it) and get some ideas. We’re going to call it an evening coming together in hope.”
On Monday, Sept. 18, there was a closed-door meeting featuring the leaders of the community. The topic of the meeting was the ongoing suicide epidemic in the Gila Valley. From that meeting, the school district decided to feature the community action meeting Monday, Sept. 25. Safford Mayor Jason Kouts attended the previous meeting and told Gila Valley Central that he, as the mayor, was willing to support the efforts of the schools and the community in the fight against the ongoing epidemic.
“The schools kind of took the lead for this, and I offered the city, ‘What do you need from us? What do you need from the city government?’ I don’t want to just throw money at this situation,” Kouts said. “I want to throw our time, time to our kids. As I said before, it takes a community nowadays to raise a child. I’ve signed up for that, I’m ready for it. My wife and I will do whatever we can to help and be there for families who are struggling, kids who are struggling, and even adults who are struggling. I would like to reach out to the faith-based community as well. As you know, I am strong in my faith, and I believe strongly in our faith-based helping us out in this crisis situation. So I would definitely lean toward our faith base as well.”
Kouts said he is open to whatever might help the community to move past and heal from the current suicide epidemic. Whether this healing required professional lectures, community open-house meetings, or listening to leaders from other communities, Kouts has faith that the Gila Valley can move on and recover.
“I do believe in our community, and I think that together we can do great things,” Kouts said. “We’ll pull together. Our community will pull together. There’s strength in numbers, and if you get this community to pull together we’re going to rise above this, and sour over this, and learn and grow from it. I believe that with my whole heart.”
Thatcher Mayor Bob Rivera was available for comment as well. Rivera acknowledged the situation as what it was, but stressed community togetherness and that everyone was invited to the meeting on Monday.
“We’re all working on this together,” Rivera said. “We have to find some kind of solution and you know, what can we do? We need to start talking about it. We can’t be quiet about these things, it’s happening too much. There’s got to be an answer. These people sometimes feel that they are all alone, and what can we do to let them know that they are not alone and that they are loved? Maybe we can come up with a hotline in the valley, set up in the valley? I don’t know what the answers are. This is a horrible situation in the last few months where people are taking their lives and now we’re going to sit down because of this and come up with some solutions.”
The public is invited to the David M. Player Center for the Arts from 6:00 pm to 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 25, to discuss the current situation of the Gila Valley.