If you would have told me at the end of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Chapter Leadership Conference last year that the world would completely shut down in just over a month, I would have thought you were making a joke. None of us could have anticipated how things would change due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and how much of our organization’s work, through our local chapters across the country, would be impacted by it. If life has ever given us lemons, 2020 was the year.
But how exactly would we make lemonade?
Each year, hundreds of our passionately engaged volunteers converge on one host city, along with AFSP staff, for our annual Chapter Leadership Conference. It’s a chance for us all to come together, share experiences and ideas, and learn what’s on the horizon for the organization. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to charge our batteries and renew our enthusiasm for our mission: to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. If we couldn’t be in person this year, I wondered, what would CLC “look like?” All I knew was that it wouldn’t be exactly the same.
But one thing I also hadn’t anticipated was how resilient our organization, our chapters and our army of volunteers could be. This past year, our staff and volunteers buckled down, pivoted strategy and managed to be remarkably flexible in figuring out strategies to continue our work in communities everywhere, in physically safe ways. Education and support programs continued virtually, our Out of the Darkness events reinvented themselves into Experiences people could participate in in many different ways, suicide prevention research and advocacy continued, etc. Our Chapter Leadership Conference in January 2021 would take the same approach.
While we had to rethink the format of the conference, the content and the heart of it stayed the same, despite being virtual. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t, like the rest of us, disappointed to miss the opportunity to see everyone in person at the conference. We are all ready for the pandemic to be over. But it is also true that the pandemic has given us surprising new opportunities, and shown us just how strong and united we truly are in this important work.
There were unexpected benefits to hosting CLC virtually. We have often wondered how to expand the conference to a larger number of passionate board members and volunteers. This year’s virtual CLC enabled that. Through the conversations we had, and the different sessions we participated in, we:
- encouraged each other to think creatively about new and different ways to engage all our volunteers and the people in our communities
- shared with each other what worked best in our own communities when it came to continuing our programs virtually – often just as easy as in-person, and in ways that benefitted a broader audience
- celebrated the fact that – thanks in part to our efforts – it was recently reported that there was a reduction in the suicide rate for 2019
- were reminded that our advocacy work continues even during this global pandemic, and were given ideas for how to participate more fully going forward, while encouraging others to, as well
- heard great ideas about how to be there for survivors of suicide loss beyond our programs, and understand their needs
- got a highlight of what’s on the horizon for our prevention education efforts
- learned to think outside the box in our fundraising, and got some good ideas about how to expand those efforts so we can continue our important programs
- were inspired to keep up the good work in our bold Project 2025 goal to reduce the suicide rate 20% by the year 2025
- learned about the efforts being taken to increase our diversity as an organization, and were challenged to participate in those efforts at the local level
In short, this year’s Chapter Leadership Conference was a rousing success. Technology managed to bring us together and keep us connected until we can once again be together in person. At the close of the four-day event, we were even able to celebrate each other’s major accomplishments as chapters at our CLC Rockin’ Awards Ceremony!
As we peer into 2021, we have reason to feel hopeful. The vaccines are rolling out. Our pent-up energy is ready to burst onto the scene to make a difference. We can see a day where hugs and handshakes will once again abound. The attributes we’ve cultivated during this pandemic, such as resilience, flexibility, and new communication skills, will get launched into the world to produce untold success as we strive to create a world without suicide.
AFSP has always been only as strong as its people. COVID-19 has tried to keep us apart but this year, we were reminded that we keep each other going through our deep relationships, our passion, our ongoing investment, and our shared vision. This year’s Chapter Leadership Conference was a reminder that our people continue to be hard at work, and that no matter what, we #KeepGoing.
This year’s conference taught us how to make some pretty damn good lemonade.