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Our Growing Community of Hope

Ronnie WalkerVIEW ALLIANCE OF HOPE’S 2021 RECORD OF IMPACT

Dear Friends,

The Alliance of Hope started as a small project from my kitchen table in 2008 – when I realized that so many suicide loss survivors lacked support. Back then, I wondered how we could take the best parts of an in-person support group and transfer them to an online environment.

I am often credited as the “founder,” but the truth is, that almost from the beginning, countless people jumped in to help, and that is why we exist.

Today, 14 years later, our website is filled with survivor stories, information about the suicide loss experience, and links to resources.

Our community forum is a 24/7 support group for more than 21,000 people. Our trained moderators ensure that each new survivor is welcomed and supported. Thousands of people from all over the English-speaking world log on for support every week. And what they hear again and again is: “I understand.”

I’m so grateful for the team of people who work behind the scenes to ensure our services continue. I am indebted to our volunteers and those who fund the work we are doing – with donations large and small. Their support has created the foundation for us to provide hope in the shattering aftermath of suicide loss.

I invite you to review our latest Record of Impact – which is also a gratitude report – to learn more about the important work we are doing … for survivors by survivors.

I hope you can feel the stories behind the numbers, the people behind the stories, and – the bottom line for all suicide loss survivors – the hope that comes with hearing: “You are not alone.”

With deepest gratitude,

Ronnie Walker MS, LCPC

Founder and Executive Director

 

A letter of gratitude – to all who make the Alliance of Hope possible

Dear fellow survivors,

My name is Melanie Kenderdine. I am the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Alliance of Hope, and like you, I am a survivor of suicide loss. I found the Alliance of Hope in 2009, after my dear brother Russell died by suicide. It almost sounds cliché – but the Alliance of Hope was my lifeline. For several years, I visited the forum every day. I formed connections and friendships with the only community that could take my hand, fathom my pain, and help me heal.

As I grew stronger, I looked to see how I could support the organization that put me and thousands of others on the road to healing. I became a donor, joined the board of directors, and started down a new path. I have been the board chair for the last four years. While it has been heartbreaking seeing so many other survivors come to our nonprofit for help, it has also been very meaningful to help this organization grow and begin its transition from a grassroots effort to an organization with professional staff, helping more and more survivors.

2020 was not an easy year – for any of us, and for many who lost a loved one to suicide, it served to compound their grief and isolation. The Alliance of Hope saw a 300% increase in requests for counseling, and every day, hundreds of you logged on to our forum – to connect, share your stories, and seek lifesaving and life-affirming support.

The pandemic has called on us to respond in new ways to new challenges. As more people have sought support from the Alliance of Hope, we have felt the urgent need to strengthen our infrastructure and expand our services, for all who need support now, and for all who are to yet come.

As we start this new year, I want to thank all who work so hard to make the Alliance of Hope what it has become. It takes special people to be able to be there in our times of greatest need, and these are some of the most wonderful, giving people I have ever known. I am proud of all they have accomplished this last year – they are tireless, selfless, and completely devoted to helping those of us who have experienced the devastation of suicide loss. Please join me in showing our gratitude for this spectacular team.

Our Executive Director and Founder, Ronnie Susan Walker, was honored by the American Association of Suicidology for her extraordinary contribution to survivors of suicide loss. She has worked tirelessly for 13 years – initially without any staff – to help survivors during their darkest hours. Last year, in addition to overseeing AOH’s survivor services and staff, Ronnie provided more than 300 consultations for new survivors, and connected with hundreds of others, to help them build a foundation for healing. I know she thinks about our community every day – always looking for more ways to help.

Our Forum Manager, Hazel Gaddes, does an outstanding job ensuring the culture of our forum remains safe and healing for all who arrive. Informed by her experience as a loss survivor and psychiatric nurse, Hazel empowers our moderators and handles challenges with sensitivity and grace. Last year, we welcomed an average of 10 new survivors to our forum each day. Our community now has more than 19,000 members.

Our Forum Moderators, Ano, bam, genesgirl, Graceinthemoment, Hope for Peace, johnsmom, Keep Breathing, MarianneS, Melinmc, MissingHim, MissU, montanamom, Shelby, Terry S., all understand firsthand the challenges faced by survivors. We often say they put the “Hope” in the Alliance of Hope. Each volunteers hundreds of hours in support of new loss survivors. Special thanks to Terry S. who manages our Forum Stewards Program, and to our stewards, who are so conscientious.

Our Director of Development & Communications, Heather Shadur, has worked alongside Ronnie since the Alliance’s founding 13 years ago. She is Ronnie’s daughter, and a talented public affairs professional. A true connector with a huge heart, Heather leads our strategic planning and organizational development efforts. Her efforts to raise awareness about the challenges loss survivors face, and raise funds to sustain our services, has enabled us to help more people and will be the foundation for the development of future programs.

Our new Operations Manager, Susan Reynolds, has been a wonderful addition to the Alliance of Hope team. She is helping us create a sustainable structure within our organization. Her insight and support in the areas of project management, human resources, training, and productivity and well-being are invaluable.

Our Website & Forum Tech Support Team, including the great Forum Developers at Audentio, our Website Development team at Technology Therapy, and our volunteer Tech Committee, led by Ed H and johnsmom, worked to strengthen the security and depth of resources we provide through our online infrastructure. A special thanks Jennifer Shadur, our Search Engine Marketing volunteer, who ensures people across the world find our site when they are searching for support.

Our part-time Administrative Support staff, Maura Junius, provided communications and management support to our organization. Last year she coordinated our board and committee meetings and managed more than 240 submissions to our Memorial Wall.

Our Programs & Services Committee, co-led by John McIntosh, Ph.D, and Ronnie Walker, formulated and piloted a new 8-session course for grieving fathers that we hope to expand in 2021. Special thanks to Steve Shannon, who led the first course. Steve lost his son Patrick to suicide 10 years ago. Like me, he was helped by the Alliance of Hope and later joined our board of directors.

Our Communications and Development Consultants, who empower us to communicate effectively about the work we do, and raise the funds we need to sustain and expand our services. Our fundraising advisors, Gina Lobaco and Sally Bixby, helped us develop campaigns that resulted in us exceeding our fundraising goals. Our communications advisor, Kevin Lampe, has helped our nonprofit grow from a point where we did not know if it would survive, to a time when it is thriving.

Our Graphic Designers, Pinckney Templeton and Valerie Gilzean, whose loss of their brothers and understanding of the suicide loss experience helped us develop social media awareness campaigns like the “Suicide is Complicated” campaign we undertook last year, that touched hundreds of thousands of people.

Our Financial and Legal Advisors, including Our CFO, Amy Ceisel CPA, and our accountant, Laura Wiley, who help us with our accounting and operations management, and Aaron Kase, Esq., our legal advisor, who helps us with our policies and legal affairs.

Our Board of Directors, John McIntosh, Ph.D., (Secretary), Ellen Karp (Treasurer), Don Belau, Ph.D., Jennifer Shadur, Steve Shannon, Donna Soule, and Ronnie Walker, whose ongoing governance and dedication to our mission is vital to our existence.

Last but certainly not least, a special thank you to all the Forum Members, who courageously share your experience and reach out so generously in support of one another, and to all who donate or raise funds to help make the work of the Alliance of Hope possible.

Sadly, we cannot bring our loved ones back, but we can join together to help one another heal. I hope you find this community and organization to be as loving and supportive as I did, and I wish you all prayers for your ongoing healing.

Sincerely,

Melanie Kenderdine
Russell’s Sister and Alliance of Hope Board Chair

Why are Therapists so Rarely Trained in Suicide?

Over the years, many suicide loss survivors have contacted the Alliance of Hope, searching for a counselor who understands the unique nature of their grief.  Some have told us that a counselor who helped them previously doesn’t know how to help now. This is not surprising because few graduate schools include suicide aftercare (or postvention) in their mental health curriculums and there is little continuing education in this area.

This lack of attention to the needs of suicide loss survivors has always occurred to me as a profound void in the arena of mental health support because the complex and traumatic nature of suicide catapults family and friends onto a challenging grief journey. In the initial aftermath, those closest are almost 10x more likely to have suicidal thoughts than the general public. They are also more likely to leave their jobs or drop out of school.

Last week, USA Today published an article that highlighted another crucial gap in support. Prevention campaigns urge suicidal people to seek treatment – yet most mental health practitioners have no formal training in how to work effectively with suicidal people.

Journalist Alia Dastagir wrote: “Suicide-specific training is not commonly offered as part of college curriculums, optional post-graduate training opportunities are limited, costly and time-consuming, and experts say some therapists may not be aware they even need the education.”

Dastagir points out that only nine states in the U.S. mandate training in suicide assessment, treatment, and management. Prominent organizations that accredit graduate programs in psychology and social work do not require specific competencies in suicide prevention.

Lacking training and experience in this area, many therapists feel lost. Some hesitate to take on suicidal clients, fearing they might say or do the wrong thing, that a client might attempt, that they might be blamed, or that they might be sued. Making things more challenging is the fact that there are few options available to therapists treating someone who is actively suicidal, other than sending them to an ER, or involuntary hospitalization – both of which are proving to have questionable outcomes.

Those of us who have already lost loved ones to suicide are keenly aware of the complexity and challenges associated with preventing suicide. We know that “noticing signs,” “calling an 800 number” or “getting a loved one into treatment” does not always work. Too many loss survivors have discovered that being in treatment or on medication, does not ensure suicide will be prevented. 

In her article, Dastagir cites experts who suggest that preventing suicide “requires a holistic approach that includes communities, families, educators and religious leaders working together. But society, they say, has placed the burden of caring for suicidal people on a mental health workforce woefully underprepared to help them.”

It is disconcerting to realize that those we rely on to help us and our loved ones may themselves feel lost, with little training, or few tools and resources to help. It is my hope, that in the coming decade there will be better training for mental health professionals, and greater emphasis on the importance of holistic support, so that we can help those who need it most.

Click here to read the full story: We tell suicidal people to go to therapy. So why are therapists rarely trained in suicide?

Alliance of Hope Founder to Receive Loss Survivor of the Year Award

We are proud of our founder, Ronnie Walker, who is being recognized by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) for her dedication to helping loss survivors. On Saturday, April 25, Ronnie will receive the  “Loss Survivor Award” at the 32nd Annual Healing after Suicide Loss Conference in Portland, Oregon.

This award has been given since 1995 to acknowledge ways in which survivors of suicide transform the trauma of their loss into suicide prevention efforts and/or survivor support. It is intended to recognize significant accomplishments of an individual involved with suicide prevention, intervention and/or postvention advocacy.

Ronnie lost her stepson to suicide in 1995, and founded the Alliance of Hope in 2008, with a mission of providing healing support to other loss survivors. Today the Alliance of Hope is a comprehensive resource for survivors and the professionals who serve them, and many call it a lifeline. Thank you, Ronnie for your service to survivors!

Let’s Change the Conversation

Last month, the Alliance of Hope created a social media campaign to bring a different perspective to National Suicide Prevention Month. Our goal was to increase awareness about the challenges suicide loss survivors face, give survivors a voice, and provide an opportunity for dialogue to occur. 

Understanding that many loss survivors feel discomfort around traditional prevention messages, we wanted to expand the public discourse. We shared a new post every other day, with original content inspired by the words of survivors.

The response we received was overwhelming. Thousands commented on and shared the posts, telling their own stories of struggle and loss. A common theme survivors felt was that others did not understand suicide loss unless they had been through it. 

In their comments, loss survivors addressed issues you don’t normally see discussed during prevention month. They repeatedly spoke about the oversimplification of the “suicide is preventable” statement and the need to change the conversation to include addressing societal issues, and the importance of social support and kindness.

The most widely shared posts were: “Sometimes There Are No Signs” and “Suicide is Complicated.”

Hundreds wrote to say they saw no “signs” prior to their loved one’s death. They felt the common emphasis on looking for signs was overly simplistic. Some wrote to say they DID see signs — and had done everything they could to help their loved one — but nothing worked.

This post, featuring a quote from Dr. Amy Barnhorst’s New York Times oped: “The Empty Promise of Suicide Prevention,” was also very popular.

Other posts focused on the devastating impact of suicide on those left behind — and the importance of providing support in suicide’s aftermath. 

We are very grateful to Pinckney T., a member of our community who provided the inspiration and designed the graphics for this campaign. Pinckney lost her beloved brother to suicide and understands firsthand the experience of loss survivors. She is a strong advocate that survivors’ voices be heard.

National Suicide Prevention Awareness month has come to an end, but discussing the complexities of suicide loss shouldn’t end with it. Let’s keep the conversation going.

#SomeoneYouKnow

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and we are launching a campaign on Facebook to increase awareness about the challenges faced by suicide loss survivors.

In the U.S., 45 million people have lost a loved one to suicide. Many people are not aware that loss survivors can be at higher-risk for suicide themselves, because of the overwhelming pain and complicated grief they experience.

Our “Someone You Know” campaign was created by Pinckney T. a member of our community who lost her brother to suicide. Pinckney understands firsthand why it’s so important for survivors to have support. This is what she shared with us about her inspiration for the campaign:

When I lost my brother to suicide, it was difficult to find support, as well as others who had gone through what I had gone through. People’s fear and avoidance of my grief, as well as stigma, added to my sense of isolation. When I connected with other survivors, I realized how many of us experience an extremely lonely psychological journey that leaves us with more questions than answers – something unique to suicide loss.

When I talk to people and ask them what they think can prevent suicide, they suggest things like “support,” “communication,” and a “safe place” to talk to someone. Loss survivors are a high-risk group that need those same things: support, communication, and a safe place to talk. I wanted people to understand the depth of that need, and what a vital lifeline the Alliance of Hope is for people who are suffering this kind of loss.

With 45 million loss survivors in the U.S. alone, someone YOU know needs help. They need someone to hear them and understand – not shy away from or be uncomfortable around the subject. Someone you know needs the Alliance of Hope to keep going. Their online forum operates like a support group 24/7/365. There is always someone to say, “I know what you’re going through, and I’m here,” even if it’s 3am. And that is invaluable.

Throughout the month, we will be sharing #SomeoneYouKnow posts on our Facebook page. We invite you to share those posts. Join us in educating others about what survivors need after suicide, and the free resources available through the Alliance of Hope. We also invite you to consider helping us continue to provide this free support, by creating a Facebook Fundraiser this month.

Alliance of Hope Founder Honored for Extraordinary Service to Suicide Loss Survivors

On April 28, 2019, Ronnie Susan Walker MS LCPC, Founder of the Alliance of Hope, spoke at the 40th Annual Catholic Charities “bLOSSoms of Hope” brunch in Chicago, and received the Charles T. Rubey LOSS Award, “for extraordinary service to suicide loss survivors.” She said it was humbling to look out on nearly 1000 people who had lost loved ones — comprehending their pain, courage, and perseverance. Here are excerpts from the keynote speech she delivered:

“Hello Everyone,

First and foremost, I want to thank you for this award. I’m very honored. I’m particularly moved to be standing here before you, because it was the LOSS program that supported me in 1995, after the death of my 21-year old stepson, Chan. Back then, I was so broken, I didn’t know where to turn. This program was my lifeline. It was the one place I could go where I felt understood.

When I learned I would receive this award, I began to think back on the last 24 years. I recalled the days just before Chan died – and the days, weeks, and months after he died. I remembered good times as well as bad times. I revisited my gratitude for all the people who reached out during those very dark and difficult days. I also saw how deeply I have been influenced by the courage, compassion, and kindness of other survivors I have met.

When I look around this room, I am present to the character and strength of individuals within the survivor community. I’ve been told there are about 1,000 people here. That’s amazing. Even more so when one realizes that we represent only a tiny fraction of the survivor community that exists in this country and across the world. I’ve come to see over and over again when survivors gather together as we have today, that which divides people falls aside. We are linked by a shared understanding of what it means to lose someone to suicide.

Some of you in the room today have losses that are very recent. It may have taken a lot for you to get dressed and come to this event today. Others – like myself – have losses that go back one, two, three decades or more. I believe it is very important for those of us who are further along to share our stories, in reassurance that the initial devastating pain of loss does diminish and transform. People do survive and even eventually go beyond just surviving.

I recall once hearing Fr. Rubey say that when someone dies by suicide, those closest are catapulted onto a journey. I’ve come to see the 24 years since Chan’s death as a “journey.” I was asked to share a bit of my journey – or my story – with you today, and I will do that, knowing that it might be useful, to the extent that my story reflects the human story of loss and struggle and healing and growth. I hope my story will provide encouragement for someone here today. …

THE CALL

I’d like to tell you just a bit about my stepson, Channing Werner Stowell. We called him Chan. Chan was a brilliant young man. He grew up in Barrington, IL. He was successful in school and in sports. He was well-liked by his friends and well-loved by his family. Unfortunately, he developed bipolar disorder at the age of 16. In his case, it was a devastating disease. He experienced severe mood swings, delusions and suicidal thoughts that robbed him of his ability to see things clearly. He was 21 years old and a junior at Stanford University when he fell into a deep depression and ended his life. It was a devastating loss.

Like most survivors, I remember exactly where I was when I learned he had died. On August 4th, 1995, at 4 p.m., I stood at the top of our basement stairs, phone in hand, hearing – but not really absorbing. My husband had to repeat to me several times, in different ways, that Chan was dead before I could actually grasp it. Once I did understand, I started to shake. The shaking continued all night. Come morning, I had lost five pounds.

Over the next few days, friends and family arrived. Neighbors brought food, cards, and flowers. Funeral home staff led us though required activities: Obituary – Cremation – Memorial. Five hundred people came and went, and then, within a week, our family – minus one – went back to work.

Three long weeks had passed by the time I placed a call to the Catholic Charities LOSS Program. I can’t remember what happened during those weeks. It’s blank, but I do remember sitting — collapsed on the floor at the bottom of the stairs leading to our bedrooms, when I placed a call to the LOSS Program. And I vividly recall the relief I felt when the receptionist told me to come in the very next day to meet with a counselor.

Back then, my emotions were unpredictable — as they are for most new survivors. Anxiety, guilt, and despair were constant companions. I couldn’t focus at work. My 10-year marriage began to falter and then, five months later, it failed. Although I was a clinical mental health counselor, nothing in my traditional training provided a context for what I was experiencing.

In the years following Chan’s death, I began to move forward – little by little – Inch by inch. And eventually, about 10 years after his death, I began to work as a counselor for the LOSS Program. It was very rewarding to see the healing that happened and the friendships that grew in LOSS support groups. It was amazing to see people begin to smile again.

About that same time, I realized two things: First that many people – in other cities – weren’t as fortunate as I had been. They didn’t have programs like LOSS to support them. And second, I noticed there was very little online support for survivors.   

I guess one could say I felt a “calling.” I sat down and created the Alliance of Hope website and an online survivors forum to offer the kind of information, friendship and hope I had received at LOSS, to other survivors. I wrote about the possibility of growing wiser and stronger on the journey through grief, and the possibility of eventually making a meaningful difference as a result of one’s loss.

BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME        

Looking back now, it’s remarkable that anyone ever found the Alliance of Hope website.  Initially, it was number 10,000 in a Google search. Yet people found us. They came, first in a trickle, and then, in a steady stream of six new online forum members every day. Today our forum hosts almost 16,000 loss survivors from all over the world. And last fall, we launched a new website. It is a comprehensive resource for survivors and the professionals who serve them.

Over the last 11 years, we’ve expanded our services, but our online community forum remains the heartbeat of the Alliance of Hope. It operates like a 24/7 support group and reaches thousands who have little to no in-person access to other support. It is overseen by a mental health counselor and trained team of 30 volunteer moderators. They work very hard, to ensure that the forum remains safe and healing and that no survivor goes without support. …

So now I’ve told you a little about my journey. I believe the most important thing I can leave you with today, is the reminder that each of us has a journey. When we are wandering in the dark, after the suicide of a loved one, it may be hard to believe that light will ever return to one’s life – but it does. We are forever altered by the loss of a loved one, but the vast majority of people do survive and even eventually go beyond just surviving to find themselves making a meaningful difference in ways they never anticipated.

In closing, I want to say that while I am the person standing up here today, I did not build the Alliance of Hope alone. It’s a community effort. I’ve had tremendous help from so many people who have done things that have taken it far beyond what I ever imagined. Some of them are here with me today. My daughters Heather Shadur and Jennifer Shadur are here. Heather came all the way from Hawaii. They have both done so much to support me personally and to strengthen the Alliance of Hope. I also want to thank the board members, advisors, and friends who traveled long distances to share this occasion with me today.

Last, I want to say again how profoundly grateful I am for all the support I received from the LOSS Program over the years. Without that support, my life would have gone in a very different direction. Receiving this award is very moving. It’s empowering. And it’s unforgettable. I’m very honored. Thank you.”