The past week has been jarring for Hanford High School after three students linked to the school have died.
The latest was former student Ryan Vandersommen, who died Saturday of spinal cancer at his family’s current home in South Carolina.
On Monday, numerous students and staff attended the funeral of sophomore Zach Schmidt, where they supported his family and themselves, said Principal Tory Christensen.
Some students are still seeking help coping with the loss of Zach, junior Gavin Slack and Vandersommen. Now the focus is on getting back into a routine, which officials hope will help students process the recent losses.
School officials said they are in awe of how students have banded together and how much the broader Hanford High community and others in the Tri-Cities have come to the school’s support.
“I just feel so grateful for everyone pulling together,” Christensen said.
I just feel so grateful for everyone pulling together.
Tory Christensen, principal
Zach, who was a member of the school’s cross country team, died Jan. 4 at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland after leaving class ill that day. Why he died hasn’t been determined, and the Benton County coroner is still waiting toxicology test results.
West Richland police believe Gavin took his own life on Jan. 5, though they are still investigating. He was a wide receiver and defensive back for Hanford’s varsity football team and a member of a school relay team that went to state last spring during his sophomore year.
Ryan, 17, was battling spinal cancer and went through at least two rounds of chemotherapy. The school has not sent out a formal announcement of his death, but the news was spreading on social media.
Ryan only briefly attended Hanford High, moving away during the early part of the 2014-15 school year. But students at the school raised money to help him and his family, and it was during a stint at Children’s Hospital in Seattle when Ryan was enrolled at Hanford High that he wrote My Scar is my Trophy, documenting his experience with cancer treatment. It was included in a national student anthology.
After Zach’s death, the school moved quickly to bring in counselors and other support staff, including The Chaplaincy, so students and teachers could talk to someone if they were struggling. A lot of people have taken advantage of that help.
“A few students are still trickling in for services,” Christensen said. Counselors are stationed in the school’s library. “The kids who are still struggling, we’re trying to get their parents involved. We’re trying to get some long-term solutions.”
The kids who are still struggling, we’re trying to get their parents involved. We’re trying to get some long-term solutions.
Tory Christensen, principal
The school has spread information about ways to support Gavin’s and Zach’s families, including a volunteer list for those willing to provide meals. Crowdfunding campaigns to help the families have raised thousands of dollars in memory of each student.
And plenty of support has come in from outside of Hanford High.
Christensen said one of the first calls of support he received was from Kamiakin High School Principal Chris Chelin, who then sent flowers to the school.
Banners voicing encouragement and support from Richland, Southridge, Pasco and Prosser high schools now hang at the school. At Kennewick High School, students repainted the school’s typically orange and black spirit rock with Hanford’s purple and gold and messages of support.
“Whenever someone loses a student, it’s something we would do for anyone,” said Robyn Chastain, spokeswoman for the Kennewick School District. “All the principals are very close. We’re very supportive of each other, and this is just a sign of that support.”
Christensen, also a former high school counselor, said that while a student death is never easy to deal with, he said it’s been amazing to watch students band together and support each other and that’s what will make it possible to move on.
“We’ll never forget but we need to press forward and be strong,” he said.
How to help and where to get help
Support for Vandersommen family: Here is the link to Ryan’s obituary which has details about ways to share condolences with his family or give something in his memory.
Most youth contemplating suicide do not want to die. Some of the signs to watch for if you think someone you know is at risk include a previous suicide attempt, speaking of suicide or making a plan, giving away prized possessions, signs of depression and hinting at not being around in the future or saying goodbye.
The above warning signs are especially noteworthy if they come after the death of a friend or family member, a romantic breakup or conflict with parents or reports of other suicides. Those living isolated from others, known to be impulsive or with ready access to guns are at particular risk.
SOURCES: Richland School District, The Chaplaincy, Youth Suicide Prevention Program
My Scar is my Trophy
The following poem was written by former Hanford High School student Ryan Vandersommen while going through cancer treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital. It was included in a national Writers in the Schools anthology, The Sixth Breath Blows You Home.
If my scar could speak, it would tell you a story.
It would speak of the journey that I have embarked on.
It is not a story known by many people, but it is a story
That describes the battles I have faced.
The pain that I have experienced describes how I feel inside.
It is a dark hopeless feeling, but yet, like my scar, it can be healed.
It shows that broken things can be stitched.
The process of healing does not come right away.
It takes time to heal, just like my scar.
If my scar could speak, what would it say?
Healing does not come right away, although we all face battles
Throughout our daily lives. We can be sewn, stitched,
Or put back together, but in time, just like my scar,
We will be healed.