Kal Leamer, in the freshman groove at Montana Tech, felt like an outcast at Butte High School.
Artistic-minded, he did not fit in with the mainstream of Saturday football games and pep rallies. But now, at 18, he’s found a niche — one that’s extending a helping hand to others.
Leamer is working to connect young people in an attempt to prevent suicide.
The tragedy of three teen suicides in the past several months in Butte prompted Leamer and former art classmate Katie Metesh to found Project Life.
The nonprofit offers peer-to-peer support that creates alternative outlets for youths 14 to 20.
“I started Project Life … in the hopes of creating a positive movement that gives anyone help in dealing with anxiety and depression,” said Leamer, “and at the same time focusing on life, how beautiful it is and all the fun we can have together.”
The two are filling a need for student-driven groups that let teens know they are not alone in their challenges with depression and mental illness — the No. 1 causes of
suicide, said state suicide prevention coordinator Karl Rosston.
“I know the feeling of being out of place in high school and tried very hard to fit in,” Leamer said. “Art has always been my escape. Last year, senior year, I decided I didn’t care what people thought of me.”
The ever-present emphasis on sports, in particular, impacted his self-image.
“Butte High revolves around high school football and if you don’t play football, you’re a nobody,’’ he said. “If you ask anybody up there, people will tell you the same thing. There’s no recognition for anybody who does anything else. It’s disgraceful.”
Finding constructive activities for kids of all backgrounds and interests is one of its goals.
For example, Project Life threw a Cosmic Swim Party at the Butte Family YMCA in January that was a big hit. About 100 high school and college-age kids showed up for the music, laser tag, dodgeball, inflatable football and basketball contests — all while the pool was lit with 1,300 glow sticks.
Dane Schroder, YMCA operations manager, said the party was an “awesome” inaugural event for Project Life.
“One thing that really excited me was I looked over to see four or five freshmen laughing and dancing,” said Schroder. “It really warmed my heart to see that group having that much fun; it was great. There weren’t a lot of sports kids or popular kids; it was the kids who needed it. It was a very good start.”
Leamer said youth up to age 20 are welcome at Project Life events because that’s “a crucial age” for decision-making that can affect a person’s life forever.
“It’s pretty much right before you can drink (of age),” said Leamer. “You have to decide, ‘Should I go out to drink or stay home?’”
Alcohol abuse, Rosston told East Middle School teachers recently, is a major cause of suicide and along with guns, figures heavily into the high rate of suicide in Montana. The state ranks No. 1 in the nation in alcohol consumption, No. 1 in DUIs and No. 4 in teen binge-drinking, statistics show.
“These kids have absolutely nothing to do in town and have no other choice but to drink,” added Leamer. “So by hosting constant events and activities, we plan on changing the stereotype of drinking while in high school. Instead, we’ll have fun together in a positive and productive way.”
Adults, like those with the Butte-Silver Bow Suicide Prevention Committee that comprises 20 agencies, have coalesced around suicide prevention in recent months. But from Leamer’s standpoint, action starts with him.
“After the suicides, I snapped and decided to stop complaining and get something done,” he said. “I’m tired of waiting around to hear about another life taken too soon.”
In short, Leamer said, it will take kids working with kids to change the complex culture that causes suicide.
“There is no way of completely stopping suicide, but there are ways of preventing it,” Leamer added. “The adults in the community have been doing great in trying to find solutions, but the only way you can get kids’ attention is through other kids.”
— Contact Birkenbuel at Renata.Birkenbuel@mtstandard.com or 406-496-5512.