BARNEVELD — Wally Orzechowski, executive director of Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, has served in his role for 16 years now, and has had the honor of presenting Community Partner Awards at the organization’s gala each year. This year was no exception, with six individuals receiving recognition for their efforts in suicide prevention, with an emphasis on farmer suicide prevention in SWCAP’s five-county service area.
First to be recognized was Jeff Ditzenberger, a farmer and active agriculture supporter in Green County. After facing his own battle with suicide more than 25 years ago — a story he shares often with communities, organizations and others — he decided to found his own non-profit called TUGS, which stands for Talking, Understanding, Growing and Supporting. Originally created as a way for men to share their feelings, its efforts are now more far-reaching, aiding anyone that may be struggling with their mental health.
“Every time I tell my story, at least one person comes up to me and says it made a difference,” Ditzenberger said. “Now with TUGS, we’ve got enough people on board who are knowledgable and can related to someone. We’re a place for people to call.”
While Ditzenberger has been giving out his personal phone number to farmers and others who may need a neutral, non-family member to talk to and have listen to them, its his goal in 2020 to get a website up and running with resources available to those who may be struggling with mental health in rural communities.
“Receiving the award is pretty humbling, although it’s not why we do it,” he said.
Candi Fitzsimons supports her community in many ways, serving as the director of the Johnson Public Library in Darlington and supporting the Driver Opera House, also in Darlington. For the past two years, she has also been the facilitator of Mental Health Matters of Lafayette County, a non-profit organization that aims to educate, advocate, reduce stigma and connect in rural areas.
Members of the Mental Health Matters Coalition come from all walks of life, working to make things better in rural communities. They visit schools, libraries, farm groups and more to spread their mission and also hold awareness events, like last year’s Suicide Awareness Walk and Banquet, which offered resources, featured guest speakers and raised money to support their suicide awareness goals.
“This is important to me because it’s so tragic that it’s happening at such an alarming rate,” Fitzsimons said. “Our organization aims to reduce the stigma and make people aware that mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Julie and Phil Henneman’s lives changed forever in 2006 when their son Keith, a dairy farmer, committed suicide on his farm. His dairy herd had a fatal sickness, which was devastating to the young man, not even 30 years old.
“I’m involved because I don’t want anyone to experience what we did,” Phil Henneman said.
The Hennemans, who also received a Community Partner Award, are founding members of Dodgeville’s Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost children for any reason. They are also integral in planning area Question, Persuade and Refer trainings, or QPR, a program that helps people recognize the signs of suicide and intervene with ways to help.
Phil Henneman said a lot of those warning signs can slip by, referencing a person who knew of his son’s mental state but may have not known what to do in that situation. It’s why the couple has been spearheading QPR trainings in seven different counties in southern Wisconsin, visiting schools, businesses and hospitals, among others, to train people and raise awareness.
“I want people to know what to do to prevent this from happening again,” Julie Henneman said. “This person probably didn’t choose but rather didn’t know to do something. And that’s why we need to educate people and break down that stigma.”
Through their work with Compassionate Friends, the Hennemans were able to meet Susan Springer Judd, who was also honored at this year’s gala with a Community Partner Award. Judd, too, has experienced suicide first hand, losing her brother, Donald, to suicide in 2012.
Judd realized that there weren’t many resources available in Iowa County for those struggling with suicidal thoughts or for the families affected by suicide, so she founded the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County, a group of concerned individuals who work to spread awareness and reduce stigma as a way to prevent suicide. She wiped away tears as she accepted her award, making sure to hug the Hennemans after.
Judd has also been heavily involved with QPR trainings, teaching people in the community three basic steps if they suspect someone is suicidal.
“It’s extremely important,” she said. “We didn’t see the signs with Donald. They were there, but we didn’t know what to look for.”
The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County also plans events like a shoe memorial and memorial walk to remember those lost to suicide. The group also hands out novelty items like wristbands and t-shirts to further spread their message and let people know there are resources available for them. More than 4,000 t-shirts have been distributed, with everyone from students to county workers wearing them in support.
The Hennemans also worked with Judd to produce a public service announcement video that can be shared throughout the community to start a conversation. The original two-minute video featured Phil Henneman as the “star,” although he said it was hard to play a depressed person in the short clip as he thought of his son and his struggles.
“It doesn’t matter how you get the help, as long as you get the help,” he said.
The coalition has also made a shorter, 30-second video that has been playing on local channels when the group has the funds to put it on the air. Judd and the Hennemans were surprised when it was announced that the first $8,000 raised at the gala would be going to the suicide prevention coalition to continue to air their video.
“We’re here to break down stigmas and let people know they don’t have to be afraid to talk,” Judd added. “Everyone in this room can do something.”
The final person recognized was Chelsea Wunnicke, a UW-Extension family living agent in Richland County who has dedicated her time to SWCAP for many years. In her job at Extension, she works on family, housing, mental health and addiction issues within her county and also serves on the Southwest Wisconsin Behavioral Health Partnership Steering Committee, coordinated by SWCAP.
Most recently, she has been working with SWCAP’s Farmer Suicide Prevention Project, coordinating meetings of farmers to learn about what would help support farmer well-being in Richland County. A series of workshops for the agricultural community is now planned for this winter, thanks in part to her work.
“I’m looking forward to providing some services to our community,” she said. “Agriculture is the engine in Richland County so we want to make sure our neighbors know we care about each other.”