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Suicide awareness from the heart

NORTHFIELD — Suicide. It affects many, is discussed by few.

Pioneer Valley Regional School student Ryan Wagner is trying to change that, and on Thursday night, prior to the Pioneer girls’ varsity basketball game against Mohawk Trail Regional High School at 7:30 p.m., the senior will celebrate his 18th birthday by reading a short presentation about suicide prevention and awareness.

Wagner knows first-hand what it’s like to cope with suicide. On Sept. 26, 2012, Wagner’s 17-year-old step-sister Emily Dionne, a senior at Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield, took her own life. It was one of many suicides that have affected schools throughout the Pioneer Valley lately. Wagner, a Pioneer football player this past fall, turned to assistant Panther coach Tom Gaffigan following the tragedy. Gaffigan also knows the personal pain of losing a sibling to suicide, brother Mike Gaffigan. Wagner said that the coach was instrumental in helping him cope with the loss.

“It’s a time where nobody knows what to say,” he explained. “Coach helped me a lot.”

“We talked right from the beginning,” Gaffigan said. “I’m with him all the time and we are very open and honest.”

The two joined forces with Pioneer accounting/keyboarding teacher Cathy Abbott, who was also affected by suicide as a teenager growing up in Agawam, where her next door neighbor committed suicide. The three decided that they wanted to do something to bring awareness to a topic that is often overlooked. The idea was hatched to prepare a statement that they were initially hoping to read prior to the Turkey Day football game against Franklin County Technical School. Unfortunately, the presentation was not ready for kickoff.

In December, Wagner went to the Pioneer Valley Interscholastic Athletic Conference athletic directors’ meeting, where he pitched the idea of each school reading a short statement on suicide awareness and prevention. The pitch was met with positive feedback and it was agreed that every school in the Pioneer Valley will take part in reading a short presentation prior to one boys’ and one girls’ basketball game this season. Gaffigan said he is proud of Wagner for his efforts and hopes it can make a difference.

“Nobody really talks about suicide,” Gaffigan added. “And we’ve gone through so much that we don’t want other people to have to go through it.”

Not only that but the basketball angle is appropriate, given that Wagner is playing for the Panthers, having decided to take up the sport despite not playing competitively since sixth grade. Wagner, who already read the presentation prior to a boys’ home game this season, said one of the most important aides helping him cope with the loss of his sister (he does not refer to her as step-sister) has been through sports.

“It was helpful to have sports,” he said. “It helps take your mind off of things.”

And now he is using sports as a means of not only coping, but also to give back and possibly help others, both those who are suicidal and those left in the wake of a suicide.

“I just wanted to do something to show how to help,” Wagner said. “You want to get through to others.”

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