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Parents who lost child to suicide begin nonprofit aimed at sharing positive messages

A Vancouver couple started Our City Cares, which places hundreds of signs with encouraging messages near school campuses, after their son took his life in 2016.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Everyone needs an encouraging word from time to time. But what if that "life-up" was the very thing that saved your life? That’s the idea behind a Vancouver couple's nonprofit, Our City Cares.

Joe and Sheryl Stephens started the organization, which places hundreds of signs with encouraging messages in and around school campuses. Their goal is to help prevent suicide.

"It's a mom's worst nightmare," Sheryl Stephens said. She and Joe lost her son, Jon, to suicide in 2016. Jon was 25, had just left for college and to the Stephens, he showed no signs of being suicidal.

"Our friends, our family, everybody, we were just shocked," Sheryl said.

That shock rippled throughout the Stephens' Camas community, where that same year, several other young adults took their own lives.

"It was very hard to see our community so impacted and it just left us with a desire to try to do something to help," Sheryl said.

Credit: KGW
Sheryl and Joe Stephens

That’s when she and Joe came up with Our City Cares, inspired after a similar effort in Newberg, Oregon.

"If there's a lie, there's a truth to combat the lie," said Joe Stephens, talking about the negative thoughts that often attack people’s minds. "Somebody's having a down moment, 'Well, I'm not worth anything, I'm worthless,' you say, 'You're worthy of love!' [If they say] 'I can't do it, I'm going to quit,' [you say] 'Don't give up!'"

The signs have messages like, "There is Beauty in Brokenness," "Comparison is the Thief of Joy," "You Are Not Alone," and "Your life matters!" For the past two years, the Stephens have posted the signs on and around every school in the Camas School District. The signs include the number for the Clark County Crisis Line.

"At least we know we're making an impact," Sheryl said. "They're calling."

Whether it's a call for help in a dark moment, or a glimmer of light to spark a conversation, the Stephens are hopeful that the signs are making an impact.

"Just to try to get people talking about what keeps you going when life is hard," Sheryl said. “It would just be enough to shift their thinking.”

This fall, the Washougal and Evergreen School Districts will join Camas schools in displaying the signs. Our City Cares is trying to raise $25,000, to pay for 22 signs to grace each of the three districts’ combined 66 campuses. That’s 1,452 truths—any one of which could save a life.

“If we can make a difference in one family,” said Joe Stephens, “then it's a family that doesn't have to deal with this."

Those interested in making a donation can do so on the Our City Cares website.

VIDEO PLAYLIST: Breaking the Silence


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 crisis support by text. Text 741741 to be connected to a trained counselor.

Help is available for community members struggling from a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts. Suicide is preventable.

The Multnomah County Mental Health Call Center is available 24 hours a day at 503-988-4888.

If you or someone you know needs help with suicidal thoughts or is otherwise in an immediate mental health crisis, please visit Cascadia or call 503-963-2575. Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare has an urgent walk-in clinic, open from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., 7 days a week. Payment is not necessary.

Information about the Portland Police Bureau's Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) and additional resources can be found by visiting http://portlandoregon.gov/police/bhu

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