“We’re all human” was one of Ryan Bartel’s favorite expressions.
As a teen with Asperger syndrome, he had struggled socially for most of his life. But he began to blossom during his junior year at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville. He made friends, many of whom were enduring difficulties of their own, and even provided comfort to some teens who were having thoughts of suicide.
“He told us that he had saved several of his friends,” Ryan’s mother, Suzie Bartel, said. “And, of course, the sad part is that he didn’t tell anyone else what he was going through.”
Ryan took his life in October 2014, during his senior year at Woodgrove. He was 17.
In January of this year, western Loudoun County was devastated by the suicide of William Robinson, a 17-year-old Loudoun Valley High School student. The two deaths left many in the community wondering what they could do to help other teens who were battling feelings of hopelessness and despair.
On Wednesday, Woodgrove students and staff members will take part in a 1.5-mile “We’re All Human” walk to raise awareness of teen suicide. The walk will be co-sponsored by the Ryan Bartel Foundation, which was created by Ryan’s parents to help prevent such deaths. Organizers say they hope the walk will encourage students who are considering taking their lives to reach out for help.
“The students are craving it,” said Geri Fiore, Woodgrove’s director of school counseling. “They don’t want to lose anyone else. This really hit the community hard.”
The idea for the walk came from a group of students Fiore gathered in the fall to discuss the problem of teen suicide. Suzie Bartel joined them and suggested sponsoring an art project to raise awareness about the issue.
“What happened in that meeting was really quite extraordinary, because as I was telling them about ideas for artwork, I also told them that we need more ideas,” Bartel said. “All of a sudden there was this brainstorming going on in that room, and the energy was incredible.”
“It was like magic,” Fiore said.
That initial group of students has grown into the school’s We’re All Human Committee, which has about 35 members, Fiore said. They are making signs displaying facts and statistics about suicide to post along the school’s cross-country course, where the walk will take place.
Senior Minh-Tam Tran Le, a member of the committee, said the group decided that a walk would be the best way to engage the entire school.
“So we can do that . . . by actually getting people up and moving and interacting with their friends, all on a course that is designed to have you be aware of suicide facts and suicide stories,” Tran Le said. “It allows people to immerse themselves in the message of awareness . . . that this is an issue that affects everyone.”
At the end of the walk, participants will go to the gym for an all-school assembly, where a student rock band will perform, and speakers will talk about suicide prevention. The assembly will also feature the premiere of a documentary directed by two students, Sidney Ramirez and Kirsten Hein, in which students tell about their experiences with feelings of hopelessness.
“I just saw preview of the documentary, and I cried a little bit because these kids are struggling every day,” junior Puneet Kaur said.
Senior Diana Tinta said people tend to avoid talking about suicide because the issue is too sensitive.
“But I feel [that] talking about it is the solution to it,” she said. “So many [suicide victims] have friends that just don’t know that they’re struggling, because in the past we didn’t put an emphasis on being able to talk about how they’re feeling.”
Members of the committee said they hope the walk becomes an annual event and spreads to other schools in the county. The group also hopes to create a “safe space” at the school where students who are struggling with depression can talk about their feelings, Tran Le said.
“It’s establishing a way to address the problem instead of just awareness that there is a problem,” she said.
“If it will just save one life, I think we’ve done our job,” Puneet said.
The “We’re All Human” Walk will begin Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. at Woodgrove High School. The public is invited to participate.