Joan Nye: An AFSP Profile Interview

March 1 – After serving as chair of AFSP’s Montana chapter for the last ten years, as well as chairing the chapter’s flagship walk, the Yellowstone Valley Community Walk in Billings, Joan Nye has stepped down as chapter chair. We jumped at the chance to ask her a few questions about her many memorable experiences and significant contributions to the AFSP mission.

How did you first get involved with AFSP? I understand you’re a Stanford Law graduate.

I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1971 and spent many years practicing law in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Billings. My husband Jerry and I began our practice together in 1982. We met in 1979 in a case, and married in 1984. We were planning for our early retirement when our 19 year-old son, John Meyer, completed suicide in June 1999. I began reaching out to other suicide loss survivors in 2000 after I “mostly” retired from law. When a Community Walk was scheduled for Billings in 2004, I jumped in as a volunteer and never looked back. I had been active in service organizations and organizing events both as a teen and an adult, so it came naturally. I began teaching suicide prevention classes soon thereafter. Volunteering for AFSP quickly became my full-time (unpaid) job in retirement. While Jerry tends to the small ranch that he has developed, I spend many hours on the computer, phone, and meetings, and log many miles promoting AFSP and suicide prevention.

What was your biggest challenge running the Montana chapter?

Geography. Montana covers a large geographical area. As a statewide chapter, that created challenges for recruiting new volunteers and board members throughout the state. After I completed the AFSP support group facilitator training in 2005, I developed a similar facilitator training program, with a gatekeeper training class included, and another board member and I “took it on the road” to many Montana communities. That, plus teaching gatekeeper classes, tabling, speaking wherever possible, and chairing a couple walks in addition to the flagship walk in Billings, resulted in many contacts around this large state. And thank goodness for social media and AFSP’s website and chapter support growth since 2008!

You oversaw a tremendous amount of growth with the Billings Montana walk, going from raising $4,000 in 2004 to over $67,000 this past fall.  How did you manage to do that? What’s the secret?

I am embarrassed by the small numbers in the early years, when we didn’t use the internet and knew little about promotion. In 2008 we began recruiting sponsors, getting 16 the first year we tried. Gradually we increased the sponsorship prices. We also stopped being overly frugal in the cost of big posters. We now paper Billings and some nearby communities, with 1,200 or more posters, and well as using social media and the internet in various ways. We always are recruiting volunteers and walkers from prior years. In 2013 this walk took off, due largely to two things: (a) we began having several promotional events in Billings from March to September, raising funds and recruiting participants; and (b) volunteer Nancy Barbula took over and re-organized our silent auction and fundraising prize area. I no longer have to think about that area of the walk. Another secret: I took voluminous notes while attending 12 Chapter Leadership Conferences over the years.

That’s right! We heard through the grapevine that you’ve attended every Chapter Leadership Conference since getting involved, up through last year’s conference. Have you noticed any changes over the years?

Yes, indeed. The first CLC in 2005 was small enough to take place in a Philadelphia law firm’s conference room. After asking chapter representatives for comments, Mike Lamma took notes on napkins, which led to his famous “napkin speech” on the last morning, about AFSP plans for the coming year. For several years we received our chapter handbooks and walk manuals in hard copy at CLC. Lugging those home – sometimes more than one copy, for board members who couldn’t attend — made luggage heavy. How wonderful when CLC thumb drives were substituted…and then came Chapterland! Over the years I have heard many great speakers on diverse areas of AFSP work, and the breakout sessions always give practical power points/documents/templates for bringing new programs to AFSP chapters. None of that was available in 2005 or 2006, and the programs grew in number and depth over the years. Another big change from early CLCs is that in 2005 we had our meals in the law office building’s cafeteria: there was no awards banquet, nor any awards. We had just one reception in a room by the cafeteria.

What are you planning on doing now that you no longer serve as chair?

I still serve on our chapter board and executive committee, and continue to facilitate the suicide loss support group in Billings. But now I can turn even more attention to our growing AFSP Montana Chapter Education Committee, which I have chaired since its inception. Over the past two years its makeup has grown to represent several areas in the state, but we still have areas under-served. I want to fill those pockets and recruit ever more people to present the various versions of Talk Saves Lives and More Than Sad. We had our first Education Committee face-to-face meeting last year, which was helpful for members to understand the differences among these programs and gatekeeper programs. I want to have regional meetings like that for underrepresented areas in Montana. With Montana having the highest rate of firearms ownership per household, as well as always being in the top three states for rates of suicide, our number one education program will be Talk Saves Lives Firearms & Suicide Prevention. Another important goal is to find and mentor a new chair for the Yellowstone Valley Community Walk.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Joan. Now, just to embarrass you a bit, here is a list of some of the awards you’ve received over your ten years as chair of the Montana Chapter:

  • 2009 – Most Improved Chapter – small market – Montana
  • 2009 – People of Faith Saint Award from Montana Association of Churches
  • 2009 – CLC Gag award –  The Mad Tweeter
  • 2015 Best Chapter Survivors Program – small market – Montana
  • 2015 – CLC Gag award – Perfect 10 Year Attendance
  • 2016 – one of 20 Exceptional Women – Billings, Montana

In addition, our sources tell us you have always been the top fundraiser for the Yellowstone Valley Community Walk in Billings, and not counting money raised from sponsors, you have personally raised over $83,000 in Out of the Darkness Walks over the years, including $5,000 in the Overnight in 2008.

Thanks so much again for all your hard work, Joan! You’re a great example of what one person can accomplish for our important cause.


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