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Keeping Her Son Alive: Creating Community After Suicide

Several groups in the Gate City are working together to start Gay Straight Alliances in local high schools. The effort is getting some help from a woman whose son committed suicide after being teased, bullied and even beaten up for being gay.

Julie Zicha has a book full of letters about her son, Ryan. The letters are from friends and family members who wrote that Ryan helped them through difficult times. Many are from other gay teenagers whom Ryan counseled.

“Ever since he was little, he was one of those kids who liked to help people. His heart was in the right place,? Julie said.

Her son became a member of the Boy Scouts, and he had ambitions of being a pilot in the military. But when Ryan discovered he was gay, he decided he did not want to live a closeted lifestyle, and that dream died. But in its place, another grew: Ryan became a ready ear and an open shoulder for many struggling gay and lesbian teenagers, Julie said.

But when her family moved from Spokane, Wash., to Pocatello, life became harder for Ryan. He started being bullied and beaten up, inside and out of school.

“He went to a party where he was dragged out into the snow by a group of athletes and they beat him. They really beat him badly. And it was really tough for Ryan. He just didn’t feel like he belonged here, like he was welcome here,” Julie said.

As time went on, Ryan?s reaction to living in a community where he felt shunned manifested in desperation. Julie watched her gay son, still under 18 at the time, marry his female best friend just so he could emancipate himself from his parents and move back to Washington. She saw him be diagnosed and struggle with Type 1 diabetes, rheumatic fever and bi-polar disorder. She watched Ryan dig himself into debt living in Washington and eventually, begrudgingly, come back to Pocatello. One night, Julie got a text from Ryan she never expected.

“‘Please forgive me. Remember that it wasn’t your fault. Always remember that I love you and that I’ll always love you. And I’m up at Pebble Creek.? And there was just no mistaking what it was,? Julie said.

On the night Ryan committed suicide, he was just 19 years old. Julie was 200 miles away at her husband?s trade show. She tried desperately to contact her son after receiving the text but was unable to reach him. It took 8 hours before Bannock County Sheriff?s deputies could recover Ryan?s body. Julie said it was the longest eight hours of her life.

It is with that memory that she is working to build Gay Straight Alliances in the Pocatello Chubbuck School District. School board trustee Nate Murphy said the groups are crucial.

“LGBT youth are some of the ones that are most susceptible to suicide and depression in their early teens. And I think it’s important to have a community space where they can come and feel safe and feel loved,” Murphy said.

Julie holds the book of letters in her lap, reading the notes that tell Ryan what his mom said he never realized. ?You were never truly alone,? one letter reads. ?I love you always,? reads another. Being able to establish the alliances would help keep some part of her son alive, Julie said.

“He touched so many lives in his short time here and all he ever wanted to do was to be that kind of person to help others through that struggle,” she said.

There is already one student at Century High School who is working to build a Gay Straight Alliance. The Idaho State University LGBT Student Association is looking for student sponsors at the other high schools in the area.

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