Few things bring a community closer, or have the potential to elicit greater change, than tragedy.
From tragedy was born Smiles for Jake, a campaign established in the wake of last year's heartbreaking suicide of 16-year-old Jake Haapajoki.
Smiles for Jake, a nonprofit organization started by Jake Haapajoki's family, friends and the Brainerd lakes community at large, is intended to be the cornerstone of an effort to bring awareness to mental illness, depression, despair and hopelessness-hallmark signs of those contemplating taking their own lives.
But Smiles for Jake is aiming for a different tactic in this effort. It will champion positivity and community to lift up anyone and everyone who may need it.
It's not just a worthy cause, it's inspiring.
Inspiring because of the fortitude shown by Jake Haapajoki's family and friends in embracing Smiles for Jake in spite of what must still be immense suffering and sorrow over the death of their loved one.
Inspiring because it shows our community cares and can rally together for the greater good and a worthy cause.
Inspiring because Smiles for Jake shines another, much needed light on the plight of those who suffer in silence from depression or mental illness.
Inspiring because the main goal is for everyone to have the chance to smile.
That is, after all, the mission statement of Smiles for Jake-suicide prevention movement through spreading positivity through life-affirming actions, with a short-term goal of reducing the suicide rate.
"... we need to make a change together because no matter what's going on ... all we can do is control ourselves. We can be nice and be kind and make people laugh because that laugh at that split second may put a person in a better place for that day, that's where they need to be," said Jake Haapajoki's father, Eryk Haapajoki, at the Feb. 17 Smiles for Jake kickoff event.
About 16 percent of youth in the Brainerd lakes area have thought about suicide according to Essentia Health in Brainerd, and more than 1 in 4 residents in Crow Wing County have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to a recent Crow Wing Energized survey. Any efforts to rectify those statistics are welcome.
Smiles for Jake is not the only effort formed following Jake Haapajoki's death. The Lighthouse Project was started by two of Jake's friends with a mission of raising funds necessary to support voluntary mental health screenings for all Brainerd High School and Forestview Middle School students.
Both are worthy efforts, and we applaud and encourage anyone who makes the effort to get such causes off the ground in our community. These grassroots efforts can become contagious, in a positive way, if we want them to be, so let's make it happen. Based on the turnout for the Feb. 17 kickoff event at Brainerd High School, we'd say Smiles for Jake is well on its way. Just look for the myriad blue smiling faces-literally Smiles for Jake-painted on snow banks around the area for proof.
Mental illness has been a hidden and hushed topic for far too long. But through the efforts of local agencies and nonprofits like Smiles for Jake, the veil is being lifted. Let's keep it going, Brainerd. It's time to shed some sunshine, and some smiles, around to everyone who needs them.