After Thomas Thode’s father died serving in the military, his family became isolated from each other.
Thomas spent lots of time in his room, while the community held memorials and made T-shirts and buttons and his father became a celebrity.
“He really didn’t feel like my dad anymore,” the 14-year-old freshman at Aztec High School told an attentive crowd of Bayfield eighth-graders on Thursday.
He called on the students to be kind to one another and not to judge each other because they may not know what other students are experiencing.
After his speech, students gathered in small groups to share their own stories, tears and hugs with those outside their close circle of friends.
Zoe Wright, 13, said it allowed her to learn things about people that she would have never known otherwise.
“Other people are going through hard things; it’s not just you,” she said.
The activities were part of Epic Day, aimed at building community and showing students how to support each other, said Loren Lapow, who led the activities.
A group from Tiospaye, a nonprofit, organized the event after learning about recent suicides in the community. Over the last three years, two middle school students, a middle school counselor and an elementary school teacher died by suicide in Durango.
This fall, a 10-year-old elementary school student in Dolores and a 14-year-old student at Montezuma-Cortez High School also died by suicide.
“It’s a huge problem in our community,” said Travis Wright with Tiospaye.
The 44 Tiospaye volunteers who helped put on the event included therapists, councilors, parents and others who wanted to do something that would help address bullying and mental health in schools.
The group asked Lapow to lead the games and activities because it is part of a larger program called the Hero Project, which he founded.
Tiospaye members plan to continue leading Epic Days at other schools in La Plata and Montezuma counties.
As part of the day, Lapow led a group activity asking those who had ever been teased for being too skinny or too small to step up. The exercise continued with other difficult situations like a family member with cancer or troubles with money.
When asked who had ever felt alone, nearly the entire group stepped forward.
“It’s not because there is a lack of people; it’s because there is a lack of community,” Lapow said.
Earlier in the day, he encouraged students to remember to ask for help and not to keep their emotions locked away.
“The balloon where you put all sadness gets so big, it will accidentally start leaking on other people,” he said.
Pain can lead to lashing out and hurting other people, while finding those who have shared similar experiences can help lead to healing, he said.