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Resiliency Project Helps Mount Vernon Heal After the Tragedies

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MOUNT VERNON, Iowa - Three student suicides in seven months shook the Mount Vernon Community School District to its core in 2011.

Two years later, the entire community is still coping, but people are also looking to help prevent another district from going through what they did. A new effort is brewing to help those in Mount Vernon and others. It's called the Community Resiliency Project and rose out of that tragedy two years ago.

"We came together with the idea of not just recovering, we know we need healing, but really a vision for building resiliency of our youth and to continue to build safety nets for our kids. So that's where our project started," said Community Resiliency Project Director Mollie Marti.

It takes a new, proactive approach to dealing with tragedies such as teen suicides, school shootings and other crises for students. For the community, it's the next step in the long healing process since that first student committed suicide at the high school.

That healing progress is ongoing for Jaimie Hanson. The pictures of her son, Jacob, are everywhere.

"Just a wonderful, wonderful smile and laugh," said Jaimie Hanson.

The good memories and those of what happened are always in her mind.

"There's not a second that goes by that we don't think about our son, that we don't think about what happened," Hanson said.

Jacob was a junior when he committed suicide. It's easy for her to dwell on her loss, but she knows she's got to push through.

"Just making sure we stay focused on that moving forward and not getting stuck in the incredible amount of sadness you can easily get stuck in," Hanson said.

Jacob's suicide and the death of the two other students impacted all of Mount Vernon. That's why the community resiliency project looks at teen suicides as a community issue.

"We know that life is hard, and it's hard as an individual and as a community and if we can prepare communities the way we have traditionally prepared individuals, we are all going to be better off," said Middle School Counselor Jennifer Holub Tischer.

Mount Vernon students recently started hearing "You matter, we need you". The campaign is a small part of the Community Resiliency Project. Psychologist Mollie Marti developed the project to deal with a crisis by building relationships and becoming stronger as a community.

"You can feel like you're alone, and those post crisis dynamics can get really sad and heavy and finger pointing and blaming and just to try to make ourselves feel a little better or safer, we don't always make the best choices," said Mollie Marti.

The project is bringing together people across Mount Vernon. The Cornell College woman's basketball coach is directing leadership camps.

"When they face that challenge often times they think they are the only ones facing it or 'how do I get through it?' And so hopefully what we provide them with are tools or mechanisms to get through those periods," said Cornell College Coach Brent Brase.

Kids at the middle school are becoming peer leaders, someone to listen if students need them.

"You don't want the kid feeling too hard on themselves like they are worth nothing because every kid is worth something," said 7th Grader Maggie Lynott.

It's coming together on many different levels not only to respond to a crisis but to prevent another one. That's something that brings comfort to people like Jaimie.

"When you have a community that is willing to step forward and build each other up and keep the focus on moving forward and keep the focus on staying positive, it makes it easier to step out of your house and keep living and keep moving forward," Hanson said.

Mount Vernon is the pilot community for the Community Resiliency project. Organizers said they've already started getting requests for help from other communities and districts dealing with suicide.

They said, one day, this could be a program any community could turn to after a crisis.

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