“We can’t control mental illness, but we can control how we treat one another.”
Those words, spoken by Pastor Hans Anderson of Trinity Lutheran Church in Brainerd Sunday, Feb. 17, at Brainerd High School, helped launch the nonprofit organization for Smiles for Jake, a suicide prevention movement through spreading positivity through life-affirming actions, with a short-term goal of reducing the suicide rate.
The Smiles for Jake mission is everyone should have hope—hope through spreading proactive positivity while lending a helping hand, a listening ear, or an open heart so no one has to live in despair and hopelessness.
“Every person is loved, valued and is important,” Mike Bjerkness said to a crowd in the BHS gymnasium. “The values for Smiles for Jake will be hopeful, positive, passionate, honest and kind.”
The Smiles for Jake movement came about after a death by suicide by 16-year-old Jake Haapajoki, a Brainerd High School sophomore. Through conversations between family and friends and Jake Haapajoki’s father, Eryk Haapajoki, organizers and supporters wanted to do something not only to address the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues, but what can be done to address the issues.
“I can’t believe it’s almost been a year,” since Jake passed away Feb. 21, 2018, Eryk Haapajoki said. “We sat here a year ago (Jake’s funeral was at BHS) and we heard the lyrics, ‘it’s been a long day without you my friend and I’ll tell you all about it when will I see you again.’ Someday we all will be able to see Jake or our other loved ones but it won’t be anytime soon, but we need to make a change together because no matter what’s going on … all we can do is control ourselves. We can be nice and be kind and make people laugh because that laugh at that split second may put a person in a better place for that day, that’s where they need to be.
“No one should have to sit up here, when I say that I shouldn’t be here. The Smiles for Jake thing is a phenomenal movement and will touch a lot of lives … but we don’t have a choice. It isn’t the way life is supposed to go but if we work together, we can accomplish that.”
Anderson said people can’t control mental illness, but they can control how they treat one another.
“Through breaking the silence, through asking for help, through being a friend to one another and to know that you are never ever alone. We can tame the beast. We can tame the beast that is inside us,” Anderson said.
During the event, organizers filmed the last part of an impact video with Eryk Haapajoki, his son Alex Haapajoki and the audience. Smiles for Jake plans to launch the video Thursday. All audience members received a free white T-shirt with the Smiles for Jake logo and its message “#wearealljake.”
Kristi Westbrock, an organizer who also spoke at the event, said Smiles for Jake is separate from the nonprofit called The Lighthouse Project, which initially was called Smiles for Jake, but changed its name to broaden its outreach.
BHS junior Noah Sundberg, friend of Jake Haapajoki and one of the founders of The Lighthouse Project, said they have raised $75,000 to support voluntary mental health screenings for BHS and Forestview Middle School students.
Jake Haapajoki’s uncle, Wade Haapajoki, also spoke during the event and said he suffers from and sought professional help for depression.
“It’s OK to ask for help. it’s OK to see someone,” Wade Haapajoki said.