Kotzebue teen gets invite to White House
November 18th, 2011 | Carey Restino
Two years ago, when Tessa Baldwin began her efforts to combat the devastating Alaska Native suicide rate, the subject was all but taboo.
"No school, no student, no teacher wanted to talk about suicide," Baldwin, who comes from Kotzebue is now a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe, said. "Teachers said they really didn't want their children learning about suicide because then they might do it. That really goes to show how much things have changed."
Now, Baldwin has a steady list of requests for her presentation from schools around the state. And on Dec. 1 and 2, she will present before President Obama.
The presidential invitation came through the Native American Youth Challenge program through which young American Indian and Alaska Native leaders were asked to submit their stories of leadership and service to their communities.
"I filled it out not knowing really what I was getting myself into," Baldwin said, adding that she never could have imagined when she made her first speech about suicide awareness that she would one day be invited to the White House. "I didn't think about my campaign going national at all, or even traveling around the state."
But Baldwin's compelling story, as well as the fact that at 17, she is not another adult standing before students, may well be the impetus for a change in attitude across the state about the taboo nature of suicide.
At the age of 5, she witnessed her uncle take his life. Last year, her boyfriend did, too. And in total, Baldwin has known six people close to her who have committed suicide. That's a lot, but not an uncommon amount in Native Villages, where the number of deaths by suicide is typically twice the national average.
"The books don't tell you how to deal with suicide after it happens," Baldwin said. "It helps to communicate with each other, and take care of one and other."
Baldwin's journey as a suicide prevention speaker picked up over the last year after telling her story to the Alaska Association of Student Governments. She got a 500-person standing ovation. Now, Baldwin has founded the nonprofit Hope4Alaska, focusing on suicide prevention, and has amassed a crew of nine to help her lead the charge. Alaska Marketplace, which is funded through the Alaska Federation of Natives, recently endowed the nonprofit with $25,000 to help pay for Baldwin's traveling expenses and create a suicide awareness program for free to schools.
Baldwin said when she speaks to students, she tries to communicate to them that she understands and cares.
"I get a lot of people talking to me about how they have thought about suicide or known someone," Baldwin said. "They say it's helpful for them to hear my story, that they have never had anyone talk about suicide in their community."
What does Baldwin do when someone tells them such personal details?
"I tell them that I am there for them, that they matter to me, and I try to keep in touch with them and build a strong relationship."
Baldwin said she plans to continue her efforts to talk to as many youth as possible before leaving for college next fall. She said she hopes to encourage other youth to share their stories and continue what she has started after she leaves. The schedule is grueling, with trips scheduled each weekend, but she said the effort is worth it.
"I hope someday that no one else has to feel the way I felt going through these struggles," she said.