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Winnetka nonprofit Erika’s Lighthouse celebrates 20 years of work in youth suicide prevention

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Two decades of service by Erika’s Lighthouse of Winnetka was celebrated at a June 4 dinner and resource showcase event at Michigan Shores Club in Wilmette, attended by an estimated 200 people.

Erika’s Lighthouse, which has a lighthouse and rays of light in its logo as beacons of hope, provides free depression education and suicide prevention programming to schools nationwide.

Tom and Ginny Neuckranz of Glenview, formerly of Winnetka, lost their middle school aged-daughter Erika to depression in 2004 and founded Erika’s Lighthouse in her honor as a not-for-profit organization.

From left to right, Laura Geiger of Wilmette, donor engagement manager for Erika’s Lighthouse, converses with Ginny and Tom Neuckranz of Glenview, formerly of Winnetka, during the networking portion of the Erika’s Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)

In providing free resources for educators, families and school staff, Erika’s Lighthouse promotes, “Get Depression Out of the Dark.”

This message of positivity has touched more than 2.6 million students, ideally saving lives as part of that estimate.

“Of course, that’s a number we’ll never know,” said Ginny Neuckranz, president and co-founder of Erika’s Lighthouse. “I get some anecdotal things like the kid saying to his mom, ‘I was in college, I didn’t feel good but I knew what to do from Erika’s Lighthouse,’ but honestly nothing will bring Erika back.”

Despite having lost her daughter, Ginny Neuckranz said knowing the organization she began in the wake of tragedy has helped save others brings her “great joy.”

“And it’s a bittersweet time to be at 20 years of not having her, she would have been 34,” Erika’s mother added.

Erika’s father and organization co-founder Tom Neuckranz said he loves the organization but wishes it didn’t have to exist.

“But unfortunately, the need seems like it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger than us,” Erika’s father said. “We’re growing all the time.”

Ginny Neuckranz, who grew up in Wilmette, discussed the stigma Erika’s Lighthouse works to dispel about suicide attempts.

“If you have made an attempt, there’s a lot of shame around that,” Ginny Neuckranz said. “That also has to be put in perspective that you’re not a loser, this is an illness, and you can get through this.

She said another way to break down that shame is to openly discuss the issue in classrooms through a common vocabulary.

“Our goals are now so lofty that not only do we want to get in schools, we want to help them change their school culture and Brandon (Combs) has developed programming to do this and it’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “It really helps to put the curriculum in.”

Erika’s mother added that there are educational opportunities and pockets all over the country.

Erika’s Lighthouse’s Executive Director Brandon Combs said, “Within young people today in particular, when we’re talking about technology, we’re talking about stressors, how difficult it is to get into college, what do next steps look like for young people that are making these really challenging decisions in their life and…may not be in that position to have had a lot of experience in kind of training that resilience.”

 

Combs said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has been very clear about this and we recognize it and really push it within our programming, it’s all about connectiveness, it’s about school connectiveness, it’s about young people having trusted adults and trusted peers and people that they can go to and talk to.

“And what we’re seeing in our own data,” Combs said, “…is that the program is doing that. It’s helping students.”

The Tuesday evening itinerary featured Sally Lou Loveman of Northfield, speaker, author, coach and audience engagement personality, serving as emcee and storyteller.

Sally Lou Loveman of Northfield, event emcee, addresses the audience as storyteller during the program at Erika's Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)
Sally Lou Loveman of Northfield, event emcee, addresses the audience as storyteller during the program at Erika’s Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)

“Every student deserves good mental health,” Loveman told the audience. “And Erika’s Lighthouse is working tirelessly (to make that possible).”

Jason Dane of Northbrook, kinetic wellness instructor at New Trier Township High School, was among presenters. New Trier utilizes Erika’s Lighthouse’s Empowerment Clubs model for teens in all grades at the high school.

Erika’s Lighthouse helps to instill, “hope and really just hit home this having a trusted adult, and whoever that trusted adult might be,” Dane said.

From left, Tom and Ginny Neuckranz of Glenview, formerly of Winnetka, converse during the networking portion of the evening with Derick Elkin, Empowerment Club coordinator for Erika's Lighthouse at the Erika's Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)
From left, Tom and Ginny Neuckranz of Glenview, formerly of Winnetka, converse during the networking portion of the evening with Derick Elkin, Empowerment Club coordinator for Erika’s Lighthouse at the Erika’s Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)

“It may not be a classroom teacher, it could be a coach, it could be a club sponsor, it could be a security guard in the building,” Dane said, “but just really impressing upon adolescence that there is hope and that there is somebody out there for them if they’re struggling.”

Dr. Michelle Sircy from Louisville, Kentucky wrote a dissertation on suicide prevention for her educational leadership doctorate.

“The needs are continuing to rise,” Sircy said. “But we are becoming more aware and having better tools like Erika’s Lighthouse to where we can provide educators, provide folks that are working with kids on a daily basis, the resources they need to provide the support that our students need.”

Second from left, Dr. Michelle Sircy from Louisville, Kentucky, participates in the networking portion of the evening at Erika's Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)
Second from left, Dr. Michelle Sircy from Louisville, Kentucky, participates in the networking portion of the evening at Erika’s Lighthouse 20th Anniversary Dinner on June 4, 2024 at Michigan Shores Club (911 Michigan Ave.) in Wilmette. (Karie Angell Luc/Pioneer Press)

The evening included a toast at the end of the dinner by Erika’s parents.

“From our kitchen table to classrooms around the country, and in this room filled with so many passionate supporters and volunteers,” Ginny Neuckranz said, “this journey is also your journey.”

Tom Neuckranz told the crowd they can help promote the organization’s message.

“We can impact one million students a year by 2025 and over 2.5 million by 2030,” Erika’s father added. “All we need is the same determination, resilience and resources we have had in the first 20 years.”

Educators can learn about free Erika’s Lighthouse school programming at https://www.erikaslighthouse.org/educators/.

Visit https://www.erikaslighthouse.org.

Karie Angell Luc is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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