Organized around the theme of 30 Years Strong, this year’s AFSP Chapter Leadership Conference, held in Irvine, California recognized the milestones AFSP accomplished toward its mission to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide – and a look ahead at ways AFSP plans to accomplish its bold goal to reduce the suicide rate 20 percent by 2025 in the U.S. The three-day event enabled staff and volunteers from each of our 85 chapters to gather together, share their experiences, and learn and be inspired by each other, as we look forward to a productive year ahead.
The conference opened with remarks from Mike Lamma, AFSP VP of Field Management and Development, who gave an overview of what to expect for this year’s conference, and conducted a chapter role call to the resounding cheers of all attendees.
Remarks were made by Mary Weiler, chair of AFSP Chapter Leadership Council; and Jim Taylor, chair of our host chapter, Orange County, California Chapter followed; and a welcome address followed by AFSP’s new National Board Chair Steve Siple, who talked about how he first became involved with AFSP, and his vision as the new Board Chair for impact and sustainability to be a guiding light in our work.
AFSP CEO Robert Gebbia shared the importance of the on-the-ground work and progress our dedicated chapter volunteers and staff have made – and the long-term commitment we have made to the cause. Bob pointed to the progress we’ve made over the last 30 years as an organization, and the challenge goals we’ve set out to accomplish, including Project 2025, which is aimed at reducing the suicide rate 20 percent over the next 10 years.
A plenary session followed, moderated by AFSP Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Christine Moutier, entitled Stronger Communities: LGBTQ+ Suicide Prevention. The conversation featured a discussion of recent Chapter program activities and events in support of the LGBTQ community, and public education and research available to local Chapters. Panelists included: Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP VP of Research; Maggie Mortali, AFSP Director of the Interactive Screening Program; Shelby Rowe, AFSP Manager of Education and Prevention Programs; Erik Arveseth, co-chair, AFSP Greater Minnesota Chapter; and Emily Arveseth Hoerner, chair, Utah Chapter.
Each afternoon featured a series of five breakout sessions for attendees to learn more about programs and events to bring to their local communities.
Saturday celebrated – to the actual day – AFSP’s founding as an organization. The day kicked off with the unveiling of a commemorative 30 Years Strong video and timeline celebrating highlights of the past three decades.
In a plenary session by Dr. Christine Moutier, AFSP Chief Medical Officer, she highlighted a parallel between coordinated suicide prevention efforts and a conductor leading an orchestra. Drawing on her classical music background, Dr. Moutier made the point that each suicide prevention advocate needs the support of many others to make a big impact, just as one musician cannot achieve as full and satisfying a sound as a full orchestra working together. The presentation ended with an update on the latest new public education programs and progress made with research grants this year.
The highly anticipated launch of the Firearms and Suicide Prevention program was highlighted with an opening Q&A discussion, co-hosted by AFSP CEO Robert Gebbia and Steve Sanetti, President & CEO of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Their remarks focused on the strategy of the partnership and long-term goal of working with the firearms community to provide suicide prevention education within retail and range settings, among others. A panel discussion directly followed, and included Doreen Marshall, AFSP VP of Programs; Stephanie Coggin, AFSP VP of Communications and Marketing; Bobby Wright, AFSP New Mexico Chapter; and Ashley Foster, AFSP Area Director, Alabama and Mississippi Chapters.
AFSP funded researcher Dr. Joan Asarnow shared her work on suicide and self-harm in adolescents. Her presentation provided attendees with an opportunity to see how important it is that we continue to be the largest private funder of suicide prevention research. Dr. Asarnow has received two AFSP grants, in 2004 and in 2014, has served as a mentor for a Young Investigator, and is a member of AFSP’s Scientific Council.
During the annual awards lunch, our chapters were recognized for the incredible work and accomplishments made this past year to deliver programs and meet fundraising goals through the Out of the Darkness (OOTD) walk events. Awards were given for some of the top OOTD Community Walks, as well as top OOTD Campus Walks.
Keynote speaker, actress, author and suicide prevention advocate Mariette Hartley, who has been involved with AFSP since its founding, then spoke about AFSP’s 30 Years of Suicide Prevention and her personal story of loss and healing.
Following late afternoon breakout sessions, we recognized our chapters once again, at the Chapter Awards Banquet; and the day-long activities culminated with AFSP founding member Mariette Hartley helping CEO Robert Gebbia to blow out the candles on a 30th Anniversary cake, rolled out as dessert.
The night honored top awards for programs, event and community activities led by our dedicated Chapter volunteers, including:
Two Individual Achievement Awards for Leadership were given this year. The recipients were Nancy Farrell, who served as chair of AFSP’s Board of Directors the past three years (and whose mother won the very first Individual Achievement Award in 2008); and Pat Gainey, Pennsylvania Regional Director, who will be retiring this year after 12 years with the organization. Nancy dedicated the award to her brother Michael, whom she lost to suicide, and to her mother, for initially getting them both involved in AFSP.
Alaska won the overall Chapter of the Year award for its efforts in fundraising, advocacy, education, prevention, and loss and healing programs, doing great work in reaching high-risk populations in a sparsely populated, vast geographic area. For the seventh year in a row, our Chicago Chapter snagged the top walk award for it’s annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk, followed by the Philadelphia Chapter and Long Island Chapter.
Sunday morning unveiled the premier of AFSP’s new film It’s Real: College Students and Mental Health, which presents the real-life stories of six students. The film reveals commonly experienced mental health conditions and steps one can take to find support.
In a session entitled “On Burning Bright, Not Burning Out,” Isabel Newton, M.D., Ph.D., spoke of the challenges of fighting for a cause that is so personal and emotional for many people, and shared important self-care tips we all can use to keep ourselves healthy.
Next year’s conference will be held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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