Bill Ballenger, the founder of Break the Grey, shared his story of overcoming adversity with the students of Dowagiac Union High School Tuesday morning. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)
Bill Ballenger, the founder of Break the Grey, shared his story of overcoming adversity with the students of Dowagiac Union High School Tuesday morning. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Archived Story

Dowagiac Union High School hosts Break the Grey as part of Suicide Awareness Week

Published 8:00am Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Standing in front of entire student body of Dowagiac Union High School, Bill Ballenger clutched the microphone in his hand and started pounding his fist against his chest. The sounds that emanated from the speakers behind him mimicked those of a beating heart.

“You have a heartbeat, and that makes you special,” he told the group of teens.

Ballenger, a motivational speaker and musician, was invited to speak at the high school as part of their Suicide Awareness Week. Ballenger and his teenage support group, Break the Grey, spoke for more than a hour to the students assembled in the school gymnasium Tuesday morning.

Ballenger shared stories of his past struggles during his speech, describing his stints in juvenile detention and in an Indiana prison before he turned his life around.

“I did something to keep on going, to keep my heartbeat going,” he said. “Life is worth living. Suicide is never an option.”

The assembly was one of several activities planned for this year’s Suicide Awareness Week. The school introduced the suicide prevention drive last year, as part of a student-led service project, said Dustin Cornelius, an English teacher with the high school who helped organize the events for week.

“It was such as big success that we decided to do it again this year,” Cornelius said.

The teacher first learned about Break the Grey after a student, senior Heather Montgomery, told him about it earlier this year. Montgomery had previously listened to one of their presentations while attending school in Paw Paw, and figured they would make an impact on her classmates in Dowagiac, she said.

After hearing about the rave reception the group received during a recent visit to Buchanan and Niles, Cornelius decided to invite them to the high school. The school received a $3,000 grant from the Dowagiac Union Schools Foundation to pay for their appearance and other activities through the week, Cornelius said.

At the conclusion of Ballenger’s presentation, many students, including Montgomery, lined up to ask him about possibly interning with Break the Greyd.

“I cried listening to his speech today,” Montgomery said. “It was definitely better the second time.”

Also as part of this year’s Suicide Awareness Week, the school will allow students to sign a pledge stating that they will help any classmates who may be considering taking his or her own life.

“We had over 550 kids sign up last year,” Cornelius said. “We have just over 600 students enrolled at the school, so more than a majority were interested in helping out.”

On Thursday, the school is encouraging students and staff to wear yellow in support of suicide awareness. Like the pledge, this was a popular event last year, Cornelius said.

While it’s hard to say whether or not their efforts to curb local teenage suicide will make a long-term impact, Cornelius said he is glad to see how his students and the community have taken to the idea of helping others in need.

“If these activities can help just one person, it will be worth it,” Cornelius said.

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