Grass-roots campaign in Steamboat aims to prevent bullying, suicide
September 1, 2012
Steamboat Springs — There was a time when Kayla Guettich didn’t know if her classmates ever would call her by her real name.
For most of her tenure at Strawberry Park Elementary School, Guettich said, her classmates called her "four eyes" because she wore glasses and that some even threw rocks at her.
"I was convinced it would never get better," said Guettich, now a junior at Steamboat Springs High School. "I was going to always be the kid with no friends, and it would never get better."
So to try and fit in, she briefly tried to modify who she was and how she acted. But a friend came along and changed everything.
When Bailey Pugh arrived at the elementary school from Texas in fifth grade, Guettich said, she was the first classmate to call her by her real name.
"She was my sign of hope, and it got better," Guettich said about her best friend Thursday. "I started doing things for myself."
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Guettich said she always wanted to use her story to help other students who may be "stuck in a dark tunnel believing there is no light on the other end." She got her chance when she met Heather Savalox, founder of It Takes Courage.
A powerful video
Savalox said she was shocked when she saw Colorado Department of Health and Environment data that showed Routt County’s suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds was significantly higher than other counties in the state. From 2000 to 2010, the county saw eight suicides in that age group.
Dismayed by the statistics and carrying her own personal story of losing a loved one to bullying, Savalox founded It Takes Courage, a grass-roots community outreach team dedicated to raising awareness about bullying and preventing suicides.
The organization has no funding mechanism. Savalox does most of the planning during her free time and lunch breaks from her job as an environmental health specialist for Routt County.
"I want to be able to make it so people aren’t afraid to talk about bullying, that they don’t feel uncomfortable, and they know someone is approachable out there," Savalox said.
When she plays the video that chronicles the bullying and suicide of her 15-year-old niece Kristina, students in the Yampa Valley react quickly.
"They’ll just stop, and they’re mesmerized," said Katy Theil, a social worker for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association who is part of the team. "You’ll see children who cry. You’ll see it resonating whether they’ve experienced bullying, whether they’ve been touched by it or whether they’ve just seen it happening to other people."
The video shares Kristina’s final words left in the form of a suicide note:
"I knew I was always the ugly one. Don’t say that’s a lie because you don’t know what some kids have said and done. It hurts to think about how mean some people could be. Even when I started to look a little better, they still couldn’t see."
Making a difference
Theil, Savalox, Guettich and a few other area high school students who have been impacted by bullying — including The Lowell Whiteman School’s Olivia Rudolph and Steamboat Springs High School’s Jaelyn Kohl — give presentations to groups of students in Steamboat and share their stories.
The gatherings are intimate and provocative.
Savalox talks about the loss of her niece and why it is so important to address bullying before it leads to suicide.
The high school students, who are members of Steamboat’s Teen Council, share their own stories of bullying and how it can be overcome.
Theil creates a plan for students who are being bullied.
"My goal with whatever I work on with children is to connect them back with their parents," she said. "Bullying is too big of a thing for a child to handle on their own."
On Tuesday, It Takes Courage will give a presentation to the cheerleaders at Steamboat Springs High School.
Savalox said she hopes her group soon will expand its reach to all of the schools in Routt County. She’s also looking to utilize the voices of students who have bullied other students and come to realize what they did was wrong.
"We call it restorative justice," Savalox said. "When a bully is owning up to what he or she is doing, they are able to pay it forward and get involved with something positive and not feel punished. They have a chance to grow."
In the meantime, she’s distributing flyers, printing bumper stickers and sharing the video that has more than 246,000 views on YouTube.
And the Teen Council students are eager to continue sharing their stories.
"My message that I get across is, ‘It gets better,’" Guettich said. "Being a part of this group is a feeling I’ve never felt before. You’re actually making a difference, and you matter. I think a lot of people spend their whole lives searching for how to make a difference and how to matter. I think this is my duty to make kids realize that it gets better."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com