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Teenager Spreads Hope In Suicide Prevention

February 3, 2014, 10:00 PM by Kevin Woster

Teenager Spreads Hope In Suicide Prevention

In sweeping landscape where the old and new travel side by side, life is sacred.  It is also fragile, and all too often in jeopardy.

Like other reservation towns bruised and beaten by poverty, Kyle is facing the harsh realities of a youth suicide rate far higher than the national average. But it is also finding inspiration in an unlikely community leader.

Janay Jumping Eagle is a 14-year-old, sharp-shooting guard on the Little Wound High School girls basketball team.  She is also a member of one of the reservation's most noted and successful basketball families. Her grandfather, Dusty LeBeaux, is a South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame coach who took all eight of his children -- including Janay's mother, Echo -- to state tournaments with one team or another.

With an average of almost 18 points a game, Janay is doing her family heritage proud on the hardwood. She is also using her skills and love of the game to shoot for the greater goal of fighting suicide.

"I experienced suicide in my life, losing family, really close family, and I don't like the feeling of it," Janay said. "Just the feeling it gives you when you lose someone, it's really hard to deal with."

She is dealing with it these days by fighting back against dreadful statistics that include a cousin and others she knew. With a January 8 Facebook post, she dedicated the rest of her season to those who have lost someone to suicide and the fight against it.

Janay included a picture of her basketball with a hand-lettered message she hopes will reach kids who think about hurting themselves. The outreach caught her dad, Ryan Jumping Eagle, off guard, in the best of ways.

"It kind of hit me, you know, to know that this is my daughter. I still look at her as a little girl, you know, she's only 14, and for her to, uh, you know, make a pledge or proclaim something like that was pretty big," he said.

It was big in ways that could matter to the reservation campaign against suicide. Janay's Uncle Lyle LeBeaux works on that effort every day with the Sweet Grass Suicide Prevention Project, an understaffed effort stretched thin by the size of the reservation and a population of unusually vulnerable young people.

Getting help from his niece was a pleasant surprise, LeBeaux says.

"It's going to mean a lot to communities, to the reservation, to the kids that look up to athletes," LeBeaux said. "On there she put hope. There is hope, and that's what we're trying to do with the kids when we work with them. There is hope."

The small staff of five in the suicide-prevention program must respond immediately when a call comes in that someone is in trouble.

"If there's a chance we could save a life, we're getting out there to do it -- do what we can," LeBeaux said.

Janay's basketball coach says hope is exactly what some reservation kids need, in a life-and-death way. Norma Brown Bull gets emotional when she talks about what Janay and her teammates are doing, and why it's so necessary.

"So many young ones that we've lost. We've lost a lot of them," Brown Bull said. "And we've had athletes. We've had people that are just really quiet, and we don't even know and then they're gone. So, if she could get this message out there to help just one, I mean, that'll make a big difference."

Janay hopes that kids who are in trouble can seek help. More than that, she hopes they can discover, in some activity or friendship, the kind of joy and affirmation she finds on the basketball court.

"I don't even know if there's words for it, cause I love it so much," she said. "And, it just takes me to a happy place. And I feel like when I'm playing basketball, nothing can bring me down, stop me."

Her dad says spreading that kind of joy might save lives and could prevent the surviving loved ones from carrying the burden of loss for the rest of their lives.

"She knows the feeling of how it affects the family, you know, how hurt you are, how sad you are, how you probably will never recover," Ryan Jumping Eagle said. "She don't want no one to feel that way, basically is her main reason for doing this."

She's doing it with a basketball and words of encouragement, offered simply by a young girl with an adult message for those in trouble.

"There is hope," Janay said.

Her dad and mom take pride in what she's doing.

"I'm glad she's bringing awareness, you know, because this is an epidemic or whatever here on the reservation," Ryan said. "And hopefully what Janay did will open eyes to the kids who are feeling sad, you know, that there is hope."

Visit South Dakota's suicide prevention website

Helpline Suicide and Crisis Support.

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