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Another suicide of Discovery Canyon Campus student renews painful questions. Was there a Young Life connection?

February 24, 2017 Updated: February 27, 2017 at 8:21 am
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Young Life staff associate, Jessica Mycoskie (center in black Jacket) says a prayer with students and parents Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, remembering a Discovery Canyon Campus student who took his own life this past weekend. Young Life representatives were at the school to hand out hot chocolate and help the students cope.The teen was a member of Young Life. Carol Lawrence, The Gazette

Another family from Discovery Canyon Campus will bury their child on Saturday, one week after he took his life.

Henry Rodriguez, in the back stretch of his junior year of high school, was a gregarious guy, say those who knew him. A rugby player and outdoors lover, the 16-year-old had no qualms about crowd surfing - having his body jutted over many outstretched arms - or eating a raw sweet potato, just because.

"I was confused more than anything," Matt Chaudhary, a junior at Discovery Canyon Campus in northern Colorado Springs said Thursday about the death. "Henry was always the strongest kid I knew. Strong mentally, physically, spiritually. It was really hard news."

Although The Gazette does not typically name those who commit suicide, Henry was the sixth Discovery Canyon Campus student to commit suicide in the past 13 months. And at least half, including Henry, were involved with Young Life.

The nondenominational worldwide Christian youth organization was founded in 1941 and is headquartered in Colorado Springs.

With unanswered questions that die with every suicide, some wonder if there could be a connection.

"The Web is littered with Young Life suicides," said Discovery Canyon Campus parent Ben Townsend. "I realize correlation doesn't imply causation. However, it seems like a significant amount of people involved in this teenage support group are taking their own lives. It's kind of like warning bells going off."

Anonymous bloggers have raised similar questions.

The criticisms are not an accurate portrayal of Young Life, said the organization's spokesman, Terry Swenson.

"There are people who don't agree with who we are, and they oppose us," he said. "A lot of kids circulate through a Young Life event at some point. For some to draw a correlation is unfortunate, perplexing and contrary to who we are. We feel strongly we are a positive presence in kids' lives."

That anyone could even suggest questionable motives behind the 76-year-old ministry is heartbreaking to Young Life leaders.

"I understand people are saying is there some way this could have been prevented, is there any threat," Swenson said. "Our staff members are asking the same questions, and are certainly as confused and as troubled as everyone else."

With permission from school administrators, Young Life representatives interact with more than 2 million young people on middle school, high school and college campuses around the world.

Their mission: mentor students, help them establish a relationship with Jesus and facilitate spiritual growth by listening, praying with them, taking them to church and doing fun activities together.

"We're not trying to trick a kid," said Jeremy VanHaitsma, a Young Life area director. "Our heart and soul is to be here for the kids. We are a ministry of presence."

Young Life's Jessica Mycoskie and her crew have had connections with about 500 of Discovery Canyon Campus' 2,220 students.

"Young Life isn't a membership; it's an outreach ministry for all kinds of kids, who come and go each week," she said. "We're here to build relationships with students, offering trust, hope and friendship in the midst of life's tragedies and joys."

The nearby Tri-Lakes YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region provides office and play space for Young Life students to congregate and do activities such as broomball, grilled cheese lunches, singalongs, skits and prayer.

Young Life is a non-school-sponsored club that doesn't meet on campus and isn't allowed to advertise on campus but can be on site before and after school, said Academy School District 20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez.

Parents sign permission slips for events, Swenson said, but students don't need parental approval to participate in certain activities, such as meetings.

Young Life leaders get to know students by attending sporting events at schools, volunteering at games, providing hot chocolate after school on cold days and snacks during midterms, taking students to church and offering summer camps.

This past week, they've also been helping students grieve. A student-led memorial service at the school drew students, staff and families, along with area churches and other community groups, and numerous rugby teams from near and far, Mycoskie said.

"It's been a sad but great week of everyone coming together," she said.

Parents such as Townsend wonder, though, if Young Life focuses too much on sin, repentance and death.

"Are they providing the support to overcome these battles; I'm wondering if the hook is too hard for kids," Townsend said.

Swenson said Young Life teaches "traditional Christian messages about flourishing and living full lives, and how we all fall short of that and how the Gospel is the way to live the fullest possible life."

Young Life does not encourage students to hasten the path to meeting their Maker, VanHaitsma said, but rather helps students figure out who Jesus is and how He can help them find their way in this life.

"We don't glorify death at all," he said.

"We talk about the fun and joy and the messiness and reality of life," Mycoskie said, "and the presence of God in our current lives."

In fact, emphasizing the afterlife would be contrary to the mission of Young Life, Swenson said: "We're about kids thriving now."

Some of the students who participate in Young Life are already at-risk. According to Young Life's website, Mycoskie works to reach "kids with hidden, masked, broken or wandering hearts, inviting them into the freedom that Jesus offers."

Religion has been identified as one of the protective forces in lowering the risk of suicide for teens. A Utah Department of Health study released this week, for example, showed 60 percent of youths who reported attending religious services or activities at least once a week were half as likely to have considered suicide than those who did not.

But in the shock and confusion that follow a death by suicide - and when multiple deaths can be linked to a single school campus or religious organization - questions arise.

"This is a devastating situation," Swenson said. "Any suggestion that Young Life is anything but supportive is unfortunate. We're not new, we're not secret, we're not trying to hide anything."

The "why" often following a suicide never gets answered because there are many reasons for taking one's life: substance abuse, bullying, depression, relationship problems, family issues, academic stress, a catastrophic event, and what's called "contagion," or copycat behavior.

High school is tough, said Lizzie McCurdy, a senior at Discovery Canyon Campus, who's been involved with Young Life since she was a sophomore.

"There's changes and things going on in your life, and it's painful," she said.

Young Life helped her get through her parents' divorce, she said, and with "the kind of life I could live and the kind of joy that comes with being a Christian."

Chaudhary said Young Life has allowed him to connect with his friends on a deeper level.

"It's really neat when you can talk about God with your friends," he said. "Young Life has made me more confident, more personable and able to reach out people who might be struggling."

After last school year's tragic loss of five Discovery Canyon Campus students by suicide, students "went into summer with an open mind and a focus on moving on," McCurdy said.

Optimism reigned in the fall, she said, as the school embarked on a Harry Potter-themed series of events, the school's theater program took first place in a state competition and the football team made it to the state finals for the first time and finished second.

"We had all these great things happen, and now this," McCurdy said. "It's impossible to be in a school this size and not know someone who's heavily impacted."

Grief counselors and therapy dogs were at the school this past week.

Some teachers dropped or postponed quizzes or other assignments, Chaudhary said.

"They said focus on you. Take time to make sure you're OK," he said. "They've been very understanding."

Young Life leaders also have been there, hugging students, crying with them and helping them get through another sudden and unexpected loss of a classmate.

"I hope and pray this is something we won't have to come back from again," McCurdy said.

"After seeing all the pain my school has been through, and understanding Young Life's goal and message to introduce people to God and the kind of life and joy they can have with Him, I know there's hope."

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