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Vista Bridge's suicide prevention volunteers offer hope, a willing ear

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Janet Schumacher is a volunteer with Friends of the Vista Bridge who patrols the Vista Bridge to prevent people from committing suicide.   Don’t try to tell Janet Schumacher she is wasting her time.

Don’t tell her the odds are too long that she will make a difference with her nighttime vigils.

Schumacher has evidence.

Schumacher is one of several volunteers who have begun patrolling the Southwest Portland Vista Bridge through the night and early morning hours, hoping to dissuade people from committing suicide.

There have been a reported 175 suicides from the bridge, though that number is difficult to verify. Easily verified, however, are the deaths of four people who have jumped this year, including a middle-aged man three weeks ago and a 15-year-old Beaverton girl in June.

City Commissioner Steve Novick announced in July that he will spend about $236,000 in Portland Bureau of Transportation funds to erect a mesh screen around the bridge to deter jumpers. Construction began Tuesday. The screen should be in place in about two weeks.

Meanwhile, a loosely organized group of men and women hopes to prevent more suicides before the screen is in place.

Schumacher wakes at 3 a.m. to drive from her Mt. Scott home for a volunteer shift from 5 to 7 a.m. on the bridge with Northwest Portland resident Jenny Duchene.

Schumacher and Duchene have only met twice, on their two Vista Bridge shifts. Walking together, peering over the bridge’s east edge, because both know the precise spot from which most of the jumpers have leapt, it is apparent that these two women are not comforting each other through the quiet hour or so before darkness gives way to dawn. They are celebrating life. They are telling each other stories, laughing and enthusiastically waving at each car crossing the bridge.

Yet both are constantly aware of the reason they are here and the possibility that they might be no help at all. Recent publicity announcing the volunteer effort might dissuade a despondent person from approaching the bridge for the next few weeks. Or maybe someone will come in the quiet hours before dawn, take note of Schumacher and Duchene or any of the other volunteers, maybe even talk to them, and still jump.

“I am here to be by them and do what we can,” Schumacher says. “We’re not here to stop somebody from jumping off the bridge. I’m not going to give them hugs. I’m here to hear what they have to say.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Jan Schumacher and Jenny Duchene, volunteers with Friends of the Vista Bridge, wave to cars while patrolling the bridge.  Duchene says she is saddened just knowing there is a place near her home known as “Suicide Bridge.” Like Schumacher, she doesn’t need to believe she might be a hero.

“I may not even know if my waving and smiling and being here touched somebody and made their day a little bit better,” says the 70-year-old Duchene. “It doesn’t have to be about suicide necessarily.”

A few early morning joggers and dog walkers get smiles and greetings from the two women. Only rarely have they seen solitary walkers, but Duchene has keenly studied those few.

“I can tell from a long way away how somebody’s mood is,” she says.

Neither woman has been touched by the suicide of a friend or relative in their past.

“Most of my family die from bad decisions, but it’s certainly not suicidal,” Duchene says.

Then, turning serious, she adds, “I am amazed how much loneliness there is in this world, and how many people really believe that nobody cares.”

After their shift, the two new friends head down Vista for breakfast together at the Nob Hill Bar & Grill on Northwest 23rd Avenue or at Stepping Stone on 24th Avenue.

‘The spirits are here’

Barb Edwards took the 2:30-to-7 a.m. shift on a recent Friday, her first on the bridge. She says simply reading about the volunteers was motivation enough for her.

“I was just thinking, to come up here without hope and not have anyone up here who could tell you anything different, I could be a voice of hope for someone,” Edwards says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Volunteer Janet Schumacher looks over the edge of the bridge while patrolling on a recent early morning watch.Edwards is a high school psychologist trained in suicide prevention, but on this night she thankfully passed the time without incident, finding value in the quiet and admiring the pretty slice of moon overhead. She didn’t think her time on the bridge was wasted.

“It gives me time to be quiet and to have a conversation with God,” Edwards says.

Bonnie Kahn, who has organized the volunteer effort with husband Ken Kahn, was on an early morning Vista Bridge shift last week when a middle-aged woman walked up and wanted to talk.

“She said, ‘I want to thank you for what you’re doing. My son jumped two years ago,’ ” Kahn says.

According to Kahn, the woman’s son had been in a therapy session two hours before his suicide from the bridge. The woman said she didn’t know if volunteers on the bridge might have dissuaded her son from jumping.

“But it may have caused him to pause,” Kahn says. “That’s what we’re up here for. That pause.”

Kahn says she’s seen young people walking across the bridge who clearly were high. One young man insisted on sitting on the bridge railing until Kahn told him it made her uncomfortable and asked if he would mind sitting on one of the benches instead. He did, and the two ended up talking for a long time, the young man saying he’d been suicidal in the past, but he was not thinking of taking his life on this night.

Just then, Kahn says, a June beetle landed on the bench next to them. That struck the young man as significant.

“He said, ‘The spirits are here. Everything is going to be OK,’ “ Kahn says. “And I said, ‘Thank you, June bug.’ ”

She carried the bug off the bridge and released it in her garden.

Another woman told Kahn she found car keys left behind by the last man who had jumped from the bridge. The woman said she eventually handed the keys to the man’s mother, who found the car where he had left it near the bridge.

Kahn says that during her shifts she carries with her something she has heard, that a man who survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge spent 40 minutes on the bridge before his jump, crying and being ignored by passersby.

Now, Kahn says, when she is on the Vista Bridge, “You can’t help but think about what went through the minds of jumpers.”

Note tucked into bridge

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A note found by volunteer Janet Schumacher on Vista Bridge one morning last week.A volunteer named Jerry, who asked that his last name not be published, is reading a book on philosophy during his 5-to-7 a.m. shift. Seated on one of the benches, Jerry is aware of the bits of philosophy written in chalk on the bridge around him.

“Do not do this please,” is one of the chalk phrases. “Don’t give up,” urges another. “Stop, look up,” suggests a third.

Jerry says he hasn’t had any friends or family commit suicide and he has no idea how much help he will be here. But he’s temporarily living nearby, and maybe that’s enough.

“There are a lot of things you can do and a lot of things you want to do,” Jerry says. “And there are people like me who find more reasons not to do it. I couldn’t find a good reason not to do it. I have people I know who don’t live here but struggle with issues. I can’t be there to help them, but I can be here.”

As for Janet Schumacher’s evidence, on Saturday night she found a folded piece of blue-lined notebook paper tucked into a crack in the bridge. The note reads: “I don’t know if you’ll read this or not but thank you. You saved me. — JA.”

Friends of the Vista Bridge is seeking more volunteers. Contact: [email protected]ol.com or 503-241-4105.

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