Susan Tolle was presented the Governor’s Medallion Award for Volunteer Service in Raleigh on May 6. (Photos by Jody Taylor)

BY DEBBIE PAGE

Statesville resident Susan Tolle was recently presented the Governor’s Medallion Award for Volunteer Service from Briles Johnson, executive director of the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.

“To hear what all my fellow recipients were doing was humbling. They worked with the homeless, with the Red Cross, food pantries. Most were older retirees. It hit my heart that so much good work was being done by just twenty people,” Tolle said.

Friend and volunteer colleague Debbie Howell, who nominated Tolle for the honor, former Statesville Mayor Pro Tem William Morgan, former NC Chapter American Foundation for Suicide Prevention presidents Betsy Rhodes and Catherine English, and United Way representatives Linda Wahlburg and Jody Taylor accompanied Tolle to the Raleigh ceremony and reception.

In addition to her 42-year career in human resources, Tolle has volunteered extensively through the Daughters of the American Revolution, by helping with veterans’ and domestic violence causes, and serving on the boards of the United Way of Iredell, the Iredell Health System, the Iredell Health Foundation, and Iredell Museums.

When Tolle retired in 2015, she was ready to begin a new chapter in her life. That’s when her daughter’s mental health issues propelled Tolle in an unexpected direction. Her daughter’s two suicide attempts sent Tolle in a desperate search for mental health information and resources in 2017, during which she stumbled upon the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (https://afsp.org/).

“She was in a hole, and I couldn’t dig her out. The programs my husband and I found were not that great, but we finally found a great in-patient facility where she was treated for a few weeks, got her stabilized, and it made a huge difference,” Tolle said.

“People did not talk about suicide or mental health then like they do now. That was dirty laundry. Churches ran away from it. The pandemic changed a lot of that because people struggled in the isolation, particularly young people, so we were then forced to pay attention.”

“Finding AFSP was a life-changer,” she added. “I finally got the information to understand the dark hole my daughter was in, and the more I knew, the more I could help her, and later, other people.”

After finding the treatment her daughter needed, Tolle was inspired to help others because she saw the need all around her.

“It became a cause, a process, a passion to help others because the more I learned, the more horror I felt at the immensity of the suicide problem,” she said.

Armed with her experience in human resources, training, and public speaking, Tolle became a trainer for AFSP’s “Talk Saves Lives” (suicide prevention) and “More Than Sad” (for parents/adults working with youths) programs (https://afsp.org/community-programs/).

“I thought I’d teach the classes a few times and that would be it. I had no idea of the demand that we would have. I have taught these classes 50 or 60 times, answered thousands of questions, and trained thousands of people.”

Tolle said the “Talk Saves Lives” program is most critical because you have to know and understand what is involved in suicide prevention before you can effect change.

“It’s what it’s all about — the more you talk through problems, the more you can succeed in helping people solve their issues and save lives,” she said.

After seven years of boots on the ground involvement, including training all employees of the Iredell-Statesville School System, Tolle is stepping back and “begging people” to take over this important work and sustain it.

Before she steps away to enjoy more time with her children, grandchildren, and great-grand-child, she hopes to create a pool of 10 or 12 people who are trained to teach these classes and can be called upon as needed. She also has a committee working on the annual Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk but is still looking for a chairperson.

Tolle hopes that the “Be Well Iredell” initiative, which kicked off on May 10, may be a part of that continuity of the work she began in the county.

She hopes they might also expand offerings to include ASIST training (https://livingworks.net/training/livingworks-asist/), ideal for law enforcement, EMS, counselors, school personnel, and ministers, which teaches how to “talk someone off the ledge” by providing life-changing interventions to use in a crisis situation.

CALM training (https://www.calmamerica.org/), which teaches how to limit access to the lethal means, is also good for counselors and others who want to reduce opportunities for lethal self-harm in homes or other locations

Tolle said many in the community helped make her vision of suicide prevention efforts a reality, including many walk planning committee members, walkers, and sponsors who raised $250,000 for the AFSP cause, which pays for materials, resources, and trainings.

Tolle is appreciative of the community support she has received.

Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Jeff James was a loyal sponsor of the walk and “always agreed to anything I asked.” Dr. Boen Nutting “could be counted on for marketing and support.” John Green of Iredell Health System was also “a strong supporter and sponsor of our efforts.” Former Mooresville mayor Miles Atkins has also been a steadfast supporter of mental health awareness and suicide prevention over the years.

“So many people have been so essential to make the walk happen,” Tolle said.

8th Annual Central Piedmont Walk Out of the Darkness

The 8th Annual Central Piedmont Walk Out of the Darkness is scheduled for Sunday, September 29, at Statesville High School. Tolle said the group is trying out a new idea this year, reaching out to churches to ask them to encourage families to join the event with a picnic (or onsite food truck visit), followed by a program at 1 p.m. and the walk at 2 p.m. Registration begins at 12 noon. For more information or to register, visit https://supporting.afsp.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.event&eventID=10355

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