Amy Wolff was talking with a schoolteacher friend a couple of summers ago when she learned that suicides were skyrocketing among young people: Six teenagers in the teacher’s Oregon district had died in a one-year period, and another six had recently attempted suicide in a span of two weeks.
A study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed what she already suspected: Suicide rates among people in their teens and young 20s reached an 18-year high in 2017, with a particular spike among teen boys, according to the study.
Wolff, a married mom of two young daughters, was keenly attuned to tragedy of all kinds after witnessing the drowning of her older brother in a lake when she was 14.
She wanted to be able to do something to help others who were hurting in silence and felt alone, something that was painfully familiar to her. So she came up with an idea she called crazy yet simple:
She printed up 20 signs with the slogans “Don’t Give Up,” “You Are Worthy of Love" and “Your Mistakes Don’t Define You,” then randomly knocked on doors in her Newberg, Ore., neighborhood to ask people if she could place them in their front yards. This was about two years ago.
Everyone said yes.
“I envisioned somebody driving down the road, minding their own business and literally finding a sign for them not to give up,” Wolff said. “Was that crazy? Maybe. As l loaded the signs into the car with my kids, I thought, ‘Really, Amy? … Will anybody even notice?’ ”
They did. In fact, when word got around that she was behind the anonymous signs, the response was so positive that Wolff, who works as a public speaking coach for corporate executives, decided to create a Facebook page for it.
"Everyone wanted to know, ‘Where can we get some of these signs for our own neighborhoods?’ " she recalled.
She decided to kick things up a notch and printed 150 more black-and-white yard signs, which she sold at cost (a pack of 10 for $70), thanks to help from a friend who was a graphic designer.
Then Wolff’s husband, Jake, who is in the software business, made her a website, Don’t Give Up Signs, and she suddenly had a new purpose in life, offering encouragement to anyone who was facing a difficult challenge, suffering from depression, experiencing marital problems or simply having a bad day.
Don’t Give Up Signs is now a nonprofit and has distributed signs in all 50 states and 26 countries in six different languages. Beside yard signs, Wolff also offers pencils and postcards, bumper stickers and wristbands.
In all, she said she has sold more than 289,000 tokens of love and hope — all without making a penny.
Losing her 18-year-old brother when she was in middle school made her unafraid of others’ pain, said Wolff, who decided that if she waited until her life was perfect before doing something to help others in need, she would be waiting her entire life.
"We are never too broken to help other people,” she said. “That's probably one of the biggest lessons I've taken away.”
Wolff’s cause made headlines last month when a Seattle stay-at-home dad, Colby Wallace, ordered 15 signs and put them up near his daughters’ school after a string of teen suicides in his Queen Anne neighborhood.
"My daughters are 10 and 5, but they’ll be teenagers someday, and it’s scary to know that suicide is a sad reality with young people today,” Wallace told The Washington Post.
When he heard about Wolff’s movement, he felt compelled to get involved, Wallace said.
Although the messages might seem overly simplistic, they have an impact, he said, mainly because they are broad enough to apply to almost any situation.
That is precisely what Wolff likes to hear.
“That’s the beauty of it,” she said. “I want the signs to be for everyone — not just one cause. ‘Don’t give up’ can apply to anyone, whether somebody is thinking about suicide or has lost a job.”
Her signs resonate because people come across them randomly while driving or walking, added Wolff, and the messages speak directly to them.
She got an anonymous letter last year from a man in Salem, Ore., who had suffered from depression for seven years and had been contemplating taking his life.
“On his way home from picking up a pizza for his family, he decided to take a different road and he came across a ‘Don’t Give Up’ sign,” Wolff said. “It so moved him that he pulled over and started weeping. Then he drove home and told his family about how he’d been suffering.”
It was exactly the sign of hope he needed, she said, at exactly the right time.
New messages added by Wolff to her stockpile — “You Matter,” “You are Not Alone,” You Are Enough” — are equally effective, said Wallace, who now aims to keep his Seattle project going indefinitely through a GoFundMe account.
“It’s not overcomplicated — there’s no dot-com address, no phone number that people need to call,” he said. “People literally just see a sign, and they take it to heart.”
For Dana Fullerton, a 56-year-old grandmother from Logan County, Ohio, placing “Don't Give Up” signs throughout her rural community gave her something uplifting to do after her 12-year-old grandson, Drystyn Turner, committed suicide in March.
“He was always the loving, caring, happy-go-lucky kid riding around town on his bike,” Fullerton said. “You would never dream that he would do this.”
Hoping to prevent another family from experiencing the same pain she did, Fullerton helped to organize sign rallies at each school in her district.
"I now have a growing list of people who want a sign in their yard,” Fullerton said. “People comment that the signs just cheer them up after a rough day. Or when they are dreading going to work early in the morning, the messages help them to know they’re not alone. They touch their hearts and give them hope.”
That is enough reassurance for Wolff that she is on the right track.
“I’ve found a lot of purpose in this,” she said. “I feel like I’m once again that 14-year-old girl who said, ‘I have to make my life matter.’ I’m fulfilling that now the best way I know how, and I take a lot of joy in that. Of all the things I’ve done, this one really matters.”