June, 2018

“We Learn From It.”

Posted in Community, Suicide Prevention and Postvention on June 21st, 2018 with No Comments

Local Business Owner Rallies Team in Honor of One of Their Own

Gregory Cunningham launched Ground Care Landscaping in 2004.  A lifelong resident of the Merrimack Valley, the business fused together his business skills along with his passion for the outdoors.  He has, through the years, built both Ground Care Landscaping and its work force around the premise of, “if it happens, we learn from it.  whatever ‘it’ is.”  That edict was put to the test over the past year as his staff grappled with the loss of one of their own to suicide.  During this time, Cunningham has been instrumental in guiding his team through this tremendous loss and in helping Ground Care to uncover the teachable moment.  Among his many gestures, Cunningham has built a golf tournament in salute of the life of their revered team member and friend, Ryan.  The community event, which takes place on Saturday, June 23 will also serve a dual purpose in that its proceeds will help to raise funds for the Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley (a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley) and also for local programs and services which support our veterans.  We recently caught up with Greg as his staff puts the finishing touches on the tournament… and keeps their fingers crossed for sunshine on Saturday

On behalf of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley and the Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley, thank you so much for coordinating this event to benefit our programs and services.  Why the Samaritans?  Had you any previous association with us?

Last year the Ground Care team lost one of our own to suicide.  It was a heavy hit for all of us.  We had never been involved with the cause of suicide until it hit home.  As the owner, mobilizing to raise funds in honor of Ryan was an opportunity for me to show the rest of our team how much each of them truly means to me.

If you are comfortable, do you care to share something about the individual in whose honor Ground Care has developed this event? 

Ryan was a great part of our team.  Nobody controlled our emotions like he did.  His presence had such an impact around here.  When we lost him, it left a huge void here within the company.  Ryan was an avid outdoorsman and hiker… and he loved people more than anyone on the planet.

How is it that Ground Care came to choose a golf tournament as opposed to some other form of a charitable event? 

We just wanted to to try something new.  This golf tournament is a chance for us to celebrate the success of our company and to give back in honor of Ryan.  Losing him humbled all of us.  Yet, with this tournament, here he is again bringing the team together.  We hope to make it an annual event.

Is there anything else you wish to share about suicide and your personal experience losing someone?

You never really understand how big an issue is to someone else.  On the day that Ryan died, he and I had worked alongside one another for that entire day.  I knew that he had some issues going on, and during that day I took the time out where I could to listen and be a friend.  Still, I had no idea how heavy these issues were weighing on him.  Everyone on our team felt responsible at the time of this tragedy.  I’m still left with the question of, “could i have done more?”  I just have to remind myself and the entire Ground Care staff that we were all a good friend to Ryan, and sometimes (unfortunately) there is only so much you can do.

 If folks would like to pitch in with the event, how might they still do so?

The 18 hole tournament begins at noon on Saturday.  We’re looking forward to a wonderful afternoon at the Bradford Country Club in Haverhill.  Beyond helping us to root for sunshine on Saturday, we still have some opportunities for businesses to sponsor holes.  In addition, we would welcome any in-kind donations for raffle items.  Please contact us at 978-688-9800 if you would like to pitch in some capacity.  For any questions or additional information, please feel free to also email us at: office@groundcarelandscaping.com.

Family Services’ Samaritans of Merrimack Valley strives to reduce the incidence of suicide in the Merrimack Valley and throughout Massachusetts by providing “befriending” to individuals who are lonely, depressed and contemplating suicide or self-injury. Suicide prevention is one of the primary goals of the Samaritans, although services also include postvention services, trainings and seminars, and support groups.  If you or someone you know is in imminent risk of suicide, call 911 or an ambulance to take them to an emergency room.  Family Services’ Samaritans provides a free and confidential crisis help line to those who are lonely, despairing, suicidal or need someone to listen. This service is provided by trained volunteers who provide unconditional and non-judgmental “TLC” – talking, listening and caring. This service is available 24/7 by calling our Crisis Help Line at 866-912-HOPE (4673).


THIS is What Success Looks Like…

Posted in Mentoring on June 18th, 2018 with No Comments

Family Services Salutes Success Mentors in End of the Year Celebration

Everyone here in this room today has learned something from our Success Mentors experience,” reflected Lawrence High School’s Ninth Grade Co-Principal Elijah Heckstall as he opened the festivities at Family Services’ Success Mentors end of the year celebration.  “I hope that you will each take these lessons and turn them into success as you go out into the world.”  Over the past several months, Mr. Heckstall, along with the school’s Dean of Family & Community Jasmitila Duran, have joined forces with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley in launching and administering the Success Mentors program onsite at Lawrence High School.  The end of the year celebration offered the roughly fifty program participants and their families an opportunity to reflect back on their experiences and to salute one another for the mutual wisdom imparted.

The Success Mentors program, which will be executed over two years, specifically targets young people identified as being at risk for dropping out of school.  The program matches students with teachers, administrators, and other individuals within the high school who advise the students, providing guidance, motivation and accountability for attending school and staying on track with academic demands.  The mentors also serve as “connectors,” helping to flag challenges causing absenteeism and connecting mentees to appropriate school personnel that would otherwise remain untapped.  “Our goal is to inspire students to attend school every day,” said Ms. Duran, a 2008 graduate of Lawrence High School herself.

“It was a monumental task to get this new program off of the ground, and much credit goes out to our Family Services mentoring staff for doing so,” commented Family Services’ Chief Executive Officer Liz Sweeney who was also on hand to salute mentors, students and families at the celebration.  “This is a life-changing program.”  By pairing students with internal mentors at Lawrence High School, the Success Mentors program is built to serve as a framework in which these volunteers can have an ongoing presence in the life of their mentee and make a significant impact in their life.  The personal experiences shared publicly (by several students) at the end of the year celebration drove home a sense that this mission was repeatedly accomplished.  What also was evident (as the mentors then took to the stage) was that the impact had wider margins and proved to be quite mutual.  There were few dry eyes in the house when one teacher (Maya Jarostchuk) approached the podium to pay tribute to the student (Surenisha Velasquez) she had mentored.  “Surenisha is a kind, compassionate, sometimes sassy young lady with a deep respect for and love of family.  She has truly turned her life around during our time together.  Not only that, daily, she reminded me to be grateful for the people we have in our life.”  This type of refrain was echoed repeatedly by mentors over the course of the two hour celebratory dinner and presentation of certificates.

“What stood out for me as a mentor, was how intelligent the matches were,” shared Camila, another teacher/mentor in attendance for the Success Mentors end of the year celebration.  “The program coordinators really took great care in pairing us with a student who shared similar interests.  I was matched with Felix (pictured above with his mentor), and we shared a common interest in drawing and the arts, and also in food.  He was new to the school and was somewhat resistant to the program when we met.  I leaned on our common interests and used them as an incentive to help break the ice.”

The Massachusetts (MA) Success Mentors Collaborative is a partnership among three youth mentoring programs in Massachusetts that each serve the three poorest cities in Massachusetts led by Family Services, with the Holyoke Boys & Girls Clubs and Springfield School Volunteers.  The MA Success Mentors Collaborative employs the practices of the evidence-based “Success Mentors” model, launched by the Obama Administration in 2010, to enhance recruitment, training, and monitoring and support activities to better serve the target population of youth who are currently, or at risk of becoming, chronically absent.  That program quickly became the largest, most comprehensive in-school mentoring effort in the nation within a single city (New York) reaching nearly 10,000 students who were chronically absent or at risk of becoming chronically absent.  In replicating the “Success Mentors” model, the Collaborative sub-contracts with Mass Mentoring Partnership (MMP) to provide training and technical support.

A special thank you to our Family Services Mentoring Director Leah Feroce and to our Success Mentors Program Coordinator Michelle Martinez for the important roles they both played in the success of this program.  We are also grateful to our friends at the Eagle Tribune for joining us for this special celebration!  See the Eagle Tribune’s full coverage here.  And, to learn more about Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s mentoring programs, please visit…


Mentoring… a Great Way to Share

Posted in Mentoring on June 12th, 2018 with No Comments

We’re here for a reason.  I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s Big Friends Little Friends is a youth mentoring program that matches caring adult mentors with young people who could benefit from a relationship with a positive adult role model. The goal of the program is to develop the positive potential of young people by providing them with support, guidance and friendship – to extend to them a “little torch” as Whoopi Goldberg suggests in the quote above.  Serving fifteen towns in the Merrimack Valley, each year our Big Friends Little Friends program matches approximately 100 children with mentors.  As summer approaches, our wait list of children hoping to be matched with a caring adult remains lengthy.  Ninety-eight wonderful kids (roughly seventy-one  boys and twenty-seven girls) look forward to that ally who might shift the trajectory of their life in some way.

Recently, we caught up with a longtime Big Friend and supporter of Family Services, Stephanie Stathe.  While balancing a career and raising her own children, Stephanie made the time to serve as a Big Friend for over 12 years.  In that span she has made a tremendous difference in the lives of the multiple children she has mentored, and stands as a shining example of the shift one person can make in the life of a child.  These days Stephanie has traded in her longtime vocation within the Whole Foods organization to try her hand as a professional gardener where she learns much from her days planted in the natural world…

Can you share with us when and how you became a mentor?
I had read a compelling article in the Boston Globe about Big Brothers Big Sisters looking for mentors.  In the story, the writer stated the success rate for kids with mentors.  At the time, I also had 12 year old male twins who “had everything”.  I thought, as a family, it would be great for us to help out kids not as fortunate.  Shortly thereafter, I was matched with a nine-year old boy Kareem (pictured above right with Stephanie, his friend Junior is at left).   At the time, Kareem’s younger sister Natasha was just two years old.  Eventually, I became a mentor to Natasha  as well.  She was around nine years of age when that match took place.  Her mom was thrilled that we would be together!

There are a thousand ways to give back.  Why mentoring?
Children don’t get to choose their family or economic situation.  Having another role model in their lives can have a big impact…  I’ve seen firsthand how it has benefited both Kareem and Natasha and also many other kids in the program during the thirteen years I have been involved with Big Friends Little Friends.

Can you share any favorite moments or highlights from your experiences with your Little Friends?
Kareem is now an emerging fashion designer headed for great things professionally.  I was in attendance at a recent fashion show of his as the crowd wildly applauded.  He did a terrific job…  And a special Natasha moment was when she shared with me her a straight A report card in junior high school!

Why has the connection with the family endured?
My kids and Kareem and Natasha grew up together, and we became very close over time as a family.

Can you point to something that Kareem and Natasha have taught you?
Kareem and Natasha have taught me that I am fortunate to have them in my life.

In terms of the two hour per week time commitment and how it might give some prospective Big Friends a reason to pause, can you weigh in?
My advice is that it’s best if you can keep to the same time schedule each week.  It can be less stressful for you and also easier for the parents and kids.

In your opinion, why is right now the time to become a mentor to a child?
I think it’s harder to “make it” than it was when I was a kid.  The cost of college and living keep rising, and there are drugs everywhere.  Many kids could use the extra support to succeed in life.

You mentioned a recent career transition to that of a professional gardener.  What does spending so much time outdoors in the natural world teach you?
Plant the seed, nurture and love…

In closing, we also reached out to Kareem for a mentee’s glimpse… 
Stephanie has been a huge part of my life.  She’s like a second mother. We still speak to one another at least three times a week.  She told me that you have to believe in yourself before anyone else will believe in you.  That was a huge lesson for me.

School will soon be in recess.  Summer is upon us – popsicles and swimming and carefree hours in which to wonder.  Wouldn’t it be swell if this were the agenda for all children during this short season?  Mentoring is a great way to share such experiences.  Please consider helping us make our long wait list vanish this summer by signing up to be a Big Friend today!  Check out another of our great matches… Omar and Boris.


No Stereotypes for Suicide

Posted in Suicide Prevention and Postvention on June 11th, 2018 with No Comments

From 1999 through 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers analyzed suicide rates for people aged 10 and older using data from the National Vital Statistics System for 50 states and the District of Columbia.  Their recently released findings have been in heavy news rotation this week as they revealed an alarming 25% increase in the rate of suicide over this time period.  All states except Nevada experienced an increase.  This data, derived from the National Violent Death Reporting System, also showed that 54% of those who committed suicide in 2015 did not have a known mental health condition. Digging deeper, the researchers found that several circumstances, including the loss of (or problems in) a relationship, were more likely to prompt a suicide among those who did not have a mental health condition.  “These findings are disturbing. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. right now, and it’s one of three causes that is actually increasing recently, so we do consider it a public health problem — and something that is all around us,” shared the CDC’s principal deputy director Dr. Anne Shuchat.

As we process the tragic deaths of two high profile public figures in the span of seven days, we are reminded that there are no stereotypes when it comes to suicide.  It strikes human beings from all walks of life, from of all levels of success and education.  “We have this image that suicide is something that only happens to a certain population.  One of the things we are reminded of in these recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain is that suicide plagues all people,” offered Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley Director, Deborah Helms.  “Suicide is an equal opportunity killer, and it never happens out of the blue.  You never know what the world feels like from the perspective of someone who is battling deep depression and contemplating suicide.”

Data derived from the National Violent Death Reporting System (and included in the CDC’s study), showed that 54% of those who committed suicide in 2015 did not have a known mental health condition.  Educating the public on those all-important warning signs is at the core of the Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley, a program of Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, ongoing volunteer training sessions.  On the heels of the CDC’s disquieting findings, we want to take this opportunity to share some of these teachings to educate the broader public on some of the signs of which to be mindful.  Flags that point to a friend or loved-one needing help include; changes in behavior or mood swings, a heightened sense of hopelessness, shifts in eating habits and conversation around death and dying.  Ms. Helms stresses also that in times such as this, where suicide is at the forefront of our news cycle, people should feel comfortable asking that friend or loved one, “are you thinking of taking your own life?” Her experience has been that the question may in some ways bring some relief to that person in pain.  “Despite some peoples’ hesitation, asking this question does not put the idea into the head of someone who may be in great pain.  It is more than okay to ask that question of someone if you notice some of the warning signs.  Not only is it okay, it is necessary.”

Dr. Shuchat echoed the message of Ms. Helms and the work of the Samaritans suggesting that there are “simple steps” anyone can take to help someone at risk. “Beginning a conversation, helping keep them safe, helping them connect and then follow up with them,” are among them. “We don’t think every single suicide can be prevented, but many are preventable.”  Thanks to our friends at the CDC for sharing these 5 things that EVERYONE can do to help in the fight against suicide:

Everyone can…

  • Ask someone you are worried about if they’re thinking about suicide.
  • Keep them safe. Reduce access to lethal means for those at risk.
  • Be there with them. Listen to what they need.
  • Help them connect with ongoing support like the Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).
  • Follow up to see how they’re doing.
  • Find out how this can save a life by visiting: www.bethe1to.com

Family Services’ Samaritans of Merrimack Valley strives to reduce the incidence of suicide in the Merrimack Valley and throughout Massachusetts by providing “befriending” to individuals who are lonely, depressed and contemplating suicide or self-injury. Suicide prevention is one of the primary goals of the Samaritans, although services also include postvention services, trainings and seminars, and support groups.  Please join us on October 20, 2018 for our Second Annual Walk for Hope.


Image courtesy of the Huffington Post.


Becoming Better Fathers…

Posted in Fatherhood on June 7th, 2018 with No Comments

Celebrating Fatherhood Through Siempre Papa

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley is proud to both support and salute our new graduates of Siempre Papa, just one of the extensive parenting programs offered by Family Services of the Merrimack Valley. The six men celebrated their hard earned achievement with a party along with their wives, friends, family, and of course their children.

Family Services offers Siempre Papa multiple times throughout the year, and the curriculum is targeted toward those men who have the desire to become better fathers and men to their families. Our program focuses on five main goals and objectives, which include self-image and care, self-awareness, fathering skills, child caring skills, and finally relationship skills. Through our programs main learning objectives, these men learn not only how to become better fathers, but better man as well. Siempre Papa, teaches men how to express their emotions in both a healthy and appropriate manner, as well as ways to cope with stress and deal with discipline in a safe and positive way. Our program also teaches men about societal and cultural expectations and what they mean in terms of portraying a positive masculine role in both their families and in life. Upon completion of this program fathers are more equipped to be mindful of their actions and behaviors, and the role it plays on their children both in the present and future.

Our Family Services team celebrated the groups’ accomplishment by hosting a small and inmate graduation for the men and their families.  The night was filled with support, laughter, certificate ceremony, and of course cake!  Shared one of the proud fathers being saluted, “This program helped me understand the importance of spending quality time with my children and taking care of my physical health.”

Family services is both honored and proud to be able to host and offer programs and events such as Siempre Papa, along with many others. It is essential that our community has safe and effective ways to help those who are in need of it, and keep families happy and safe.  To learn more about Siempre Papa and our other parenting programs, please visit…


Take Good Care…

Posted in In the News, Suicide Prevention and Postvention on June 6th, 2018 with No Comments

Suicide grief is a long journey.  You don’t have to deal with it quietly and alone.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and on average just under 45,000 Americans die by suicide.  As the tragic news of a public figure continues to flood our media channels today, we here at Family Services of the Merrimack Valley remain mindful of our suicide survivor families and friends. During such heightened coverage, that swell of content can stir feelings about their loved one’s death.  Please know that you are not alone.  “I was recently contacted by a survivor who told me that, even though she is years out from her loved one’s suicide, she is re-experiencing the emotions from when her loved one first passed away,” shared Samaritans of the Merrimack Valley Director Deborah Helms.  “This may be due to the way the media reports on and sensationalizes the death of public figures.  Imagine that surviving loved one should they encounter online or in print an article that fails to use safe messaging.  In 2014, Helms sat down with the Eagle Tribune to share with their readers some best practice recommendations for safe reporting and messaging.

In a statement made public yesterday, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention issued the following, “There is never a single cause for suicide. Suicide is the result of many factors that come together such as an underlying mental health condition, life stressors, and access to lethal means. We must do more to prevent such tragic deaths through greater awareness of mental health, common risks and warning signs, and effective interventions and treatments.”  With survivors especially in mind, Ms. Helms this morning offers the following simple reminders as we grapple with yet another loss of life… “Suicide grief is a long journey and you don’t have to deal with it quietly and alone.”

  • Take care of yourself.
  • It’s not uncommon to have your own experiences and feelings  surface again when a celebrity dies by suicide and is being reported in the media.
  • You are not alone.  Reach out for help.
  • Call the Samaritans of Merrimack Valley to talk – 1-866-912-4673.
  • Visit with friends and family – find someone you can discuss your feelings with
  • Attend a Safe Place meeting
  • Tend to your own well being- eat, drink plenty of water, exercise, go for a walk, listen to music or do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself

Often, family and friends are the first to recognize the warning signs of suicide and can take the first step toward helping an at-risk individual find treatment with someone who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions. If someone is telling you that they are going to kill themselves, do not leave them alone. Do not promise anyone that you will keep their suicidal thoughts a secret. Make sure to tell a trusted friend or family member, or if you are a student, an adult with whom you feel comfortable.   If you or someone you know is in imminent risk of suicide, call 911 or an ambulance to take them to an emergency room.  Family Services’ Samaritans provides a free and confidential crisis help line to those who are lonely, despairing, suicidal or need someone to listen. This service is provided by trained volunteers who provide unconditional and non-judgmental “TLC” – talking, listening and caring. This service is available 24/7 by calling our Crisis Help Line at 866-912-HOPE (4673).

Who Is at Risk for Suicide?Suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk.  Some of the risk factors for suicide include:

  • A prior suicide attempt
  • Depression and other mental health disorders
  • Feeling like a burden
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of a mental health or substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Having guns or other firearms in the home
  • Being in prison or jail
  • Being exposed to others’ suicidal behavior, such as a family member, peer, or media figure
  • Medical illness
  • Hopelessness

Family Services’ Samaritans of Merrimack Valley strives to reduce the incidence of suicide in the Merrimack Valley and throughout Massachusetts by providing “befriending” to individuals who are lonely, depressed and contemplating suicide or self-injury. Suicide prevention is one of the primary goals of the Samaritans, although services also include postvention services, trainings and seminars, and support groups.

Image courtesy of the American Psychology Association.


Crowning Achievements

Posted in Mentoring, Uncategorized on June 4th, 2018 with 2 Comments

Capstone Finishes to 2018 Stand & Deliver Mentoring Programs…

Family Services of the Merrimack Valley’s 2018 Stand & Deliver mentoring programming recently enjoyed a grand finale as mentors and mentees put the finishing touches on a year filled with agency and inspiration.  Spirited closing receptions hosted by our corporate partners served as capstone moments for nearly 95 local middle and high school students in recent weeks.  Beyond the chance to celebrate the program’s finish, the events present an opportunity to distribute attendance accolades, reflect back and award academic scholarships.

Family Services’ Stand & Deliver academic mentoring program matches Lawrence Public School and Greater Lawrence Technical School students with volunteers from New Balance, Pfizer, Raytheon, Charles River Labs and Schneider Electric.  Each week the students are transported to the partner company for 60 – 90 minute sessions. On site, the matches work on homework, MCAS prep, AP coursework, high school/college readiness, as well as building strong relationships with one other.  “It’s always a great experience to be with the matches all year long, to see them grow closer, to see the students grow, and to watch them make strides in their academics,” shared Stand & Deliver Program Coordinator Katie Butner.   “A personal highlight this year, was when two of our seniors with whom I had really connected, could not wait to tell me they had been accepted at the colleges of their choice. They would not even tell their mentors, until they could tell me too. It’s moments like that which really make this program so much fun.”

We drive innovation…  One global team creating innovative solutions to make the world a safer place…  Born to move…  Innovators & trailblazers, committed to finding the next cure…  Helping you help others every step of the way…  These maxims represent missions embodied by our Stand & Deliver corporate partners.  Through the program, during the course of each school year, students are gifted the opportunity to glimpse firsthand the pursuit of these quests.  It makes for them a thrilling atmosphere and serves as a huge motivation in establishing their own academic and professional goals.  Of his involvement in the Stand & Deliver program Javier (a Lawrence High School senior and aspiring civil engineer) remarked, “I’ve been in Stand & Deliver for three years.  During that time I have had two different mentors.  Be it schoolwork related or current affairs, I just really enjoy the conversations here.  I feel like coming here each week and being able to get into the mind of someone else gives me a real head start.”

There is a genuine sense of achievement as the school year winds down and the program concludes notes the Stand & Deliver program staff.  This year that energy seemed heightened.  “Once the warm weather hits, it’s always a struggle to have the students focus on academics when they really just want to be outside having fun. What I noticed as this year was coming to an end, was that the kids didn’t want to leave their mentors,” shared Butner.  “They were having fun, and that speaks volumes!”

Along with that spirit of success goes a heavy dose of gratitude for the volunteers from New Balance, Pfizer, Raytheon, Charles River Labs and Schneider Electric who offer their time and talent over the course of the school year.  Family Services would not be able to do what we do without the tremendous support of our corporate partners. Thanks to them, we are able to see the smiles on our students faces, catch their laughs with their mentors and witness firsthand their enhanced academic performance.  Congratulations and THANK YOU to everyone who helped to drive our 2017 – 2018 Stand & Deliver programming!

If you would like to learn more about our Stand & Deliver program or other opportunities for supporting Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, please visit…