BARNEVELD — For more than 50 years, Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program has helped people in rural communities of southwestern Wisconsin fight the causes and conditions of poverty. Through services and programs, about 100 staff, along with over 400 volunteers, work tirelessly to tackle emerging rural needs, improving communities and helping people help themselves and each other.
Each year, SWCAP also holds a gala to raise funds for a specific anti-poverty service, with this year’s gala placing a spotlight on suicide, particularly farmer suicide and suicide in farming communities.
“In the past few years, our farming neighbors have encountered significant difficulties with their chosen occupation and way of life,” said Wally Orzechowski, executive director of SWCAP. “The toughness, resilience and mutual support among farming families and friends has helped, but in some cases, individuals find themselves mentally in a state where they see no way out and that brings about the risk that some may think about ending their lives.”
In January, SWCAP received word that it had been selected to receive a $50,000 grant from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Wisconsin Partnership Program, which allowed the community organization to start a farmer suicide prevention project. The grant is being used to develop a plan to assist farmers and farm families who may face the risk of suicide, working to build community-level capacity to identify and effectively respond to emerging mental health crises in rural communities.
SWCAP has been able to hire Chris Frakes, M.Div, Ph.D., who has been serving as SWCAP’s Farmer Suicide Prevention Director since May. Frakes grew up in rural Iowa, the daughter of a third generation commodity farmer, and shared that her concern for farmers and farming communities came out of her experiences in the 1980s farm crisis.
Frakes saw generations of farmers fall like dominos — the stress of their decisions visible in the clench of their jaws, slumps in their shoulders and heavy creases in their faces. She saw them tighten their belts, work harder than they ever had before — and carry their struggles in silence.
“The possibility of losing a farm, especially a family farm, is more complex and difficult than just losing a job,” she said. “But together, we can offer opportunities to share strategies to increase social, emotional and financial help for these farmers and families.”
With funds raised at the gala, SWCAP aims to continue building its farmer suicide prevention project using in-person community meetings to decrease social isolation, along with education around topics relevant to the ag community.
This includes creative financial solutions and strategies to reduce stress and increase mental well-being. Frakes also hopes to increase access to care for this at-risk population by providing low-cost or no cost training for community members and aims to work with rural health care providers to implement mental health screenings as part of routine medical care.
Frakes also spearheaded a number of listening sessions with UW-Extension and farmers in southwest Wisconsin to gather ideas. Along with resources of today, she is also looking back in time to examine best practices for meaningful interventions that were used in the 1980s farm crisis to help farmers and families in SWCAP’s five-county service area.
“You can also join our work by checking on neighbors, especially if they seem to be having a hard time, with a phone call to ask how they are doing, or by dropping off a meal, all of which can decrease their sense of isolation,” Frakes said.
Those who attended the gala were encouraged to give from their hearts to this important effort, although the unwavering support was clear before the silent and live auctions even began as two-thirds of the $40,000 fundraising goal was already met through sponsorships solicited from the community.
“Too many farmers have chosen suicide after losing the family farm,” commented Jeannie Blumer, SWCAP board president. “With adequate community support and funds for programming, we can show our farming community that there are folks that care and want to help, and there are options other than suicide.”
While there were dozens of items to bid on, including two homemade apple pies that fetched $600, the centerpiece of the auctions was a colorful “Never Lose Hope” quilt, created by Amy Foster and Charlotte Mullin. Mullin and her husband lost their oldest son to suicide, with a plaque near the quilt explaining that they made the quilt, incorporating light and dark patches, to raise suicide awareness and prevention.
Over $50,000 was raised that evening toward SWCAP’s farmer suicide prevention program. For more information on SWCAP, including services that may be available to you, visit swcap.org or call 608-935-2326.