I moved to Phoenix in 1999. It took me a while to find my place, connect with like-minded people, and tap into a thriving artistic community. I have to admit, at first I felt lost and alone.
The first person I met who gave me hope that I could actually live and be happy in the desert was a woman named Francine Sumner. Francine was a friend of my sister-in-law’s. She was smart, funny and entirely down to earth. I remember thinking that I only wanted to meet more women like Francine because then I would feel at home and I would know that I could build a good life in Arizona.
I ran into Francine a few months later at a Mother’s Day spa party. We were both pregnant, and we lamented about the already rising temperatures, swollen ankles, and difficulties we were enduring climbing in and out of hot cars and waddling through crowded parking lots. We talked about preschools and my inability to choose the right spot for my soon-to-be first child, Levi. She told me to listen to my heart. “What feels right?” she asked me. The decision became clear immediately.
I chose Temple Chai’s Early Childhood Center (ECC) and never looked back. It was the right place for me, and my two boys and it supported everything in which my family and I believed.
A year or two after my older son, Levi’s, entree into preschool, Francine became a teacher at the ECC. I got to see her on a daily basis and couldn’t wait till Levi turned 3 and would have Miss Francine as a teacher. Francine’s son, Zachary, was just a month older than Levi and the boys played, sang and laughed together on a daily basis. They weren’t really besties, but they were two big-hearted little boys who made friends easier with adults than kids but whose smiles were infectious and whose pictures accompanied the description of mensch in every Jewish dictionary on the planet.
I joined Temple Chai’s board of directors on Francine’s invitation. It was a tumultuous task at a challenging time of growth that taught me to stay true to what I believed in even in the face of overwhelming odds. I learned a lot from that experience and always knew Francine was there in the background and that I could turn to her if ever I needed to.
Both of my boys had the joy of experiencing Francine as a teacher, and she impacted their lives in so many positive ways I can’t even begin to enumerate. She started her own jewelry business, and I was so proud of her that I invited her to set up shop in the lobby at my first local theater production. Over the years, I joined jewelry making workshops she led and bought enough of her handcrafted pieces to open my own store.
Even all the way out in Seattle, I can close my eyes and see her beautiful smile, hear her laugh and feel the warmth of her friendship.
So this past summer, when I saw the first post on Facebook about the tragic death of her beloved son, Zachary, I became paralyzed with grief. I stood in my office as if I had been socked in the gut, the wind completely knocked out of me. The pain was excruciating. I had no idea what had happened and felt lost and incredibly guilty for not keeping in touch better, not knowing what had occurred, and not feeling close enough to pick up the phone and call her directly. I called everyone I knew and finally pieced together the devastating story of Zachary’s battle with mental illness and ultimate suicide. As someone who has struggled with mental illness my entire life and whose children wrestle with their own powerful demons, couldn’t begin to imagine Francine’s loss.
I was so far away and so afraid to intrude into her private grief. But one of her best friends said to reach out. “If she’s up to it,” she told me, “she’ll answer.” I called her immediately. I told her that my heart was broken and that I couldn’t stand on ceremony or try to be polite at a time where all I wanted was to wrap my arms around her and take away her pain. I said I’d do anything to make this better and asked if she might let me write about Zachary and tell his story. She agreed and here, in my small and insignificant way, is my attempt to help make meaning out of tragedy and perhaps save other parents from the utter devastation of losing the most precious gift in their lives.
Zachary Sumner turned 16 on Aug. 17, 2016. He will never reach his 17th birthday. Zachary will not receive the ever-anticipated acceptance letter to the college of his choice. He won’t introduce his family to the person with whom he’s fallen in love. He will never know the joy of having his own child take its first breath, the first step, or speak its first words. Zachary Sumner will never be able to tell his mother how much he loves her ever again.
Zachary Sumner was a victim of a vicious predator, one that takes millions of young people’s lives, destroys families, and can’t be contained by law enforcement, regulations or sheer will. Zachary Sumner took his own life this past June. He was battling mental illness. He lost.
Zachary was that special young person who cared deeply about everyone and everything around him. He noticed when kids weren’t at school and asked if everything was OK. He smiled and said hi to those sitting alone in the lunchroom. He recognized and included the “kid in the corner” wherever he went. Zachary took concrete steps to help others, better his community and environment, and to tirelessly battle the illness that told him he was no good, a failure, invisible.
Sadly, as Zachary struggled with his disease and hospitalizations, he never felt that same recognition when he showed up back at school. He began to be convinced that he was truly alone in his sickness, that no one saw him, that he had fought to be there for so many in need, but somehow he had become the kid in the corner himself, and this isolation and hopelessness ultimately overcame him.
In a very real sense, Zachary Sumner lost the battle against mental illness. But his family has geared up and recruited an army of loved ones and supporters who will not allow Zachary’s loss to be in vain. Together Zachary’s family, friends and community are fighting back and honoring this amazing young man’s legacy. And together, we will win this war.
Francine and her family and friends started “Kid in the Corner,” a movement designed to help change the way we face mental illness, fight against the stigma that accompanies it, and reaches out to all who feel isolated, disconnected and alone. Kid in the Corner is based on educating and spreading awareness about mental illness, promoting kindness and community connectedness and building and supporting mental health resources throughout the community. “We believe that through education, awareness, kindness and positivity, we can help change the story for the next kid in the corner,’ Francine told me over the phone a few weeks ago.
Francine has spoken at Horizon High School, Zachary’s alma mater, and helped create the first in-school Kid in the Corner club. With her guidance, kids learn how to identify the kid in the corner, start a dialogue and find a way to reach out and connect those kids who feel left out and alone with the rest of their school, classmates and community. Francine reminds me, “Most people grieve close to their personalities. I’m a teacher, and I want to affect change by fighting to end the stigma through Kid in the Corner.”
Zachary was an avid coin collector. After his death, Francine found thousands of pennies in his room. She decided to create a very concrete message to the world in honor of Zachary and her commitment to end the stigma and create kindness and enable conversations that raise awareness and save lives. She started drilling holes in pennies and offering one to everyone who asked how they could help. She created the “Penny Pledge.” Take a penny, wear it on a necklace, a bracelet, a key chain and take the penny pledge.
By wearing this penny, I pledge to:
Reach out to the kid in the corner
Ask where they’ve been
Be aware of my own mental health
It’s OK to not be OK
Realize it’s a strength to ask for help
Be a safe and caring person that others can talk to
Be a friend
Be a shoulder to lean on
When you take a penny, you accept a genuine responsibility to practice kindness in everything you do. It may sound simple but wearing my penny reminds me that doing nothing is not an option. Reach out. Actively promote kindness. Stop texting and look around to see who might need a smile or a kind word.
“Kindness really is a win-win,” Francine tells me. “There are so many ways to get involved. Start a Kid in the Corner club at your school, participate in one of the monthly kindness projects. Pass out conversation cards which suggest specific ways to reach out on one side and provide community resources on the other.”
“Create a life worth living,” Francine continues passionately, “Reach out. End the stigma and Start the conversation. That is how we honor Zachary’s legacy. That is how we change the next story.”
Visit kidinthecorner.org to learn more and join the battle to #EndTheStigma.
Debra Rich Gettleman is a mother, blogger, actor and playwright. For more of her work, visit unmotherlyinsights.com