Story and photos by Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
Jake Erlich may have been an artist, a silent film star, writer and circus performer (with the stage name Jack Earl) for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as the “tallest man in the world” in the early 1900s. But in a lot of ways, he wasn’t all that different from everyone else. He dealt with health complications, shyness, depression and even bullying, but never let his lows get the best of him.
“My presentation is called ‘Freeing the Giant,’ because it’s really about that,” Erlich said.
In addition to public speaking, Erlich also wrote the book "The Long Shadows: The Story of Jake Erlich."
“In his life, he stepped out of the shadows. … In my work, I try to do that -- to get people to open up and embrace life for what it is," he said. “I work my day job as a clinical psychologist, and I work with kids, mostly teenagers and adults, and so I deal with people who are suicidal and the idea that people feel that trapped and they can’t find some vehicle to grow out of that. That’s important to me.”
Students from around the state gathered at the conference to learn about bullying and suicide and what signs to watch out for related to those issues so they can ultimately help someone in need.
That was the goal Pendergast Elementary School Superintendent Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux and Maricopa County attorney Gina Godbehere when they founded the conference four years ago.
“We see what’s going on with suicide and harassment with students today, and we decided to come up with a little conference to see if it would help,” Matos DeBlieux said. “We’re making sure that the message is heard that it’s OK to speak up, to stand up, to save a life.”
About 1,000 people attended that first conference, which quickly outgrew its venue. This year, about 5,000 attended the event in GCU Arena.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Matos DeBlieux said about GCU’s sponsorship. “GCU is there for us, Mr. (Brian) Mueller (GCU President) supports us wholeheartedly, as well as the staff.”
It's a mutual appreciation said Dr. Tacy Ashby, Grand Canyon Education’s Senior Vice President of K12 Educational Development.
“The Stand Up, Speak Up conference empowers younger students to build a positive school community, develop quality relationships among all students and staff, and take action when a classmate needs help. Those actions are modeled every day on the GCU campus, and we are honored to be a part of this growing movement,” Director of Academic Alliances Dr. Jennifer Johnson said.
“Suicide and bullying are serious issues affecting every community. Hosting this conference allowed GCU to support the efforts to bring students, educators and community resources together to find solutions and live out our mission.”
It may have been only the first year for this year’s title sponsor, United Healthcare, but it was a partnership that CEO Joe Gaudio says aligns with his company’s mission.
“We are very proud today to support Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life,” he said. “Today is about raising awareness for kids … to teach them to be aware of the danger signs, not only in themselves, but also others as well, and speak up and get to that trusted, caring adult so that action can be taken so we can stop this tide of increased suicides.”
Gaudio said suicide rates in Arizona teenagers have increased 25% a year, making it a leading cause of death for teens and young adults. Suicide claims thousands of lives a year, and it almost claimed Westview High School senior and Speak Up, Stand Up Student Ambassador Grace Martinez.
“I was bullied from kindergarten all the way up until eighth grade,” Martinez said.
“It was about my cutting when I did have self-harm issues and then about how my friend ended up saving my life in my seventh-grade year,” she said. “Getting to be a part of Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life has been a huge help to my school, specifically because my sophomore year, four lives were saved. Knowing that kids can save other kids is a huge opportunity … knowing that you have a support group somewhere out there is really encouraging and really helpful.”
Lucy Caudillo shared the same sentiment.
“It has impacted me to share the word with other people, to know how there’s other people there that will help you with the things that you’re going through,” she said.
By participating in Speak Up, Stand Up, Caudillo said she is more prepared to spot those warning signs.
Chairman Emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Raul Grijalva said there is a need for suicide prevention and to destigmatize asking for help.
“I think many times people struggle with their own issues, sometimes their own demons, and in the process, they somehow feel like there’s no place for them to go to get help,” he said. “The more the information goes out, the more parents feel comfortable asking for help and the more students themselves feel comfortable asking for help. That’s progress.”
The conference welcomed the Be Kind crew, the School of Rock, a new musical, as well as districts and schools that had not attended previously.
“As a lifelong educator, this is my dream,” Matos DeBlieux said. “I do personally work as an educator to make sure that we are there to protect our kids and to let them know that we care, we believe in them and life is worth living.”
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]