Students help BRiDGES raise funds virtually for suicide prevention

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This past summer, we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to work as interns for the Madison County Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, known informally as BRiDGES.  Founded in 1987, BRiDGES is a nonprofit providing advocacy, leadership, and services to local families, individuals, and workplaces affected by addiction and substance abuse within the Madison County community. In keeping with the changing times over the past decade, it has expanded its scope to include suicide prevention, tobacco addiction services, problem gambling prevention, and LGBTQIA services. However, differing from other organizations that may address problems through downstream interventions focused on the aftershocks, BRiDGES’s strategies are designed to create lasting, sustainable environmental- and community -level change. In light of this, our project focused on the reimagination of traditional nonprofit fundraising amidst the realities of a global pandemic through the design, development, and launch of “STEPtember for Suicide Prevention.”

Working directly with BRiDGES’s Suicide Prevention Coalition, we created “STEPtember for Suicide Prevention” - a month-long virtual walk fundraiser that will directly support local suicide prevention, postvention, education, and reduction initiatives. Each step of the process was completed with the intention of addressing Madison County’s alarming suicide rate of 14.1 per 100,000 deaths. Specifically, we artfully constructed the event’s branding (name, logo, and color scheme), created visually pleasing promotional materials and social media posts, established a strong media presence through the creation of an official website and Facebook page, and developed the necessary logistical infrastructure for the “behind-the-scenes” work. With a limited budget, this was done through the implementation of free or cost-effective alternatives, a consideration proving significant for the maximization of profits and activity/operation of a rural nonprofit. 

In addition to the challenge of creating a virtual walk experience with nominal funding, we also endured the added difficulty of completing such a project off-site. This remote work brought with it not only the barriers of virtual Zoom meetings and countless email threads, but also the excitement of programming innovation and event design. Regardless, it was a challenging, yet creative and fulfilling mutual collaboration benefitting BRiDGES, Madison County, and us in numerous ways. Additionally, we were also tasked with the challenge of making the walk virtual given the COVID-19 pandemic, something that BRiDGES was unprepared for and unfamiliar with. We were able to create a walk, from scratch, by researching the methods used by other popular walks and organizations, enabling BRiDGES to host a successful virtual walk throughout the entire month of September. 

In regards to our contributions made to BRiDGES this summer, we would say the most important is the creation of the walk. Although BRiDGES has hosted several suicide prevention walks in the past, they were all sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Therefore, the AFSP provided most of the planning, programming, and resources. However, this also meant that the money fundraised went directly to the AFSP. Consequently, BRiDGES wanted to host their own walk in hopes of keeping the money local to provide more resources for the Madison County community. 

Overall, our understanding of public health initiatives has changed drastically over the past few months working at BRiDGES. First, we realized the importance of money and maintaining a responsible budget. Our public health experience was based out of a nonprofit organization, making our budget for the walk nonexistent. We entered this project assuming that we could just subscribe to existing walk-creation and programming sites, but soon realized that this was not the case. Although this proved to be much more difficult, our creation of free programming and resources will funnel fundraising directly to suicide prevention efforts in Madison County. On a different note, we witnessed the large scope of people affected and supported by public health initiatives. While BRiDGES is focused solely on Madison County, the walk’s virtual nature will allow participation from anywhere and everywhere. In turn, this will enable teams to consistently spread resources and provide continued support to victims of suicide and suicide loss. 

Our creation of “STEPtember for Suicide Prevention” fits directly within Colgate’s liberal arts curriculum. First, it requires the collaboration of many different professions and incorporation of various skills. This project in particular combined computer programming, economic strategizing, and community outreach among others. The skills utilized in the creation of this walk do not fit under one label, and therefore are representative of the liberal arts curriculum. Likewise, our ability to adjust programming to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions exemplifies how we adapted an existing plan/program to a changing society. Society evolves rapidly, and the liberal arts curriculum examines how existing issues, problems, and questions evolve with a changing society. 

Besides the relationships we have made and the experience we have gained, the most important result of this summer internship is the amount we have learned. First and foremost, we learned how to actively communicate and adapt to an off-site job, something that proved incredibly challenging. Given the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic, these skills will prove vital as we continue as students and employees. Personally, we also learned of Madison County’s alarming suicide rate, and thus the need for continued resources and programming focused on suicide prevention. Although we have both spent a considerable amount of time living in Madison County, we never fully realized the prevalence of suicide in a place that we call our second home.