By ALAN SMASON
After 25 years as program coordinator of Teen Life Counts, Ellie Wainer was happy enough to know that the program she helped to bring to schools across the metropolitan area had probably saved dozens if not scores of suicidal teenagers’ lives. Both strong-willed and sympathetic, she never sought any gratitude or public acknowledgment from her peers at Jewish Family Service or from the community she served. It was something she felt compelled to do, was squarely part of her character and makeup and she was more than happy to do so.
At a gathering of 500 community members last Sunday, May 21 at the Audubon Tea Room, Wainer was personally saluted by Jewish Family Service at its 2017 annual Rhythm and Soul gala. Wainer, who has worked with the program since its founding, has seen it grow to the largest suicide prevention program in south Louisiana, housed at approximately 40 area private, parochial and charter schools. The program now annually reaches more than 2700 students, ages 12-18.
On accepting a beautiful handcrafted glass award to commemorate the occasion, Wainer explained that part of her commitment to suicide prevention was due to the effect that a cousin’s suicide had upon her. She remembered her cousin Gail as having it all. “She was beautiful. She was smart. She was funny.” Wainer recalled. Her cousin was pursuing a law career at a time when women were still in relatively rare numbers practicing law.
Then, she shot herself in her psychiatrist’s driveway.
“She had just graduated from law school. I remember asking myself ‘Why? Why didn’t she reach out for help? And why (when) she was so close to achieving all of her life’s dreams?'” Wainer questioned.
“Gail seemed to have it all, yet her depression made her seem alone, isolated and worthless,” she continued.
“But there is hope. The truth is that you are never alone. There’s always help out there. That is the core message of Teen Life Counts,” she averred. “We all know how many we lose, but we’ll never know how many we save.”
Wainer credited the extraordinary volunteers who help to shape and deliver the program, many of whom were in attendance at the event. “Suicide is never an option,” she pronounced. It is what she has said in every classroom that she has entered, Wainer stated.
She read a letter from a teenager, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor two years earlier and who had contemplated suicide, holding a gun up to his head. In his letter he expressed thanks to Wainer, especially when he considered the phrase “Suicide is never an option. ” According to the letter, he decided his life right then that he would be dedicated to helping similar young adults with brain injuries by becoming a psychologist.
“‘Thank you for being such an inspiration to me because I believe God puts people here for a reason,'” Wainer recalled the words from the letter.
At the beginning of the evening, JFS executive director Roselle Ungar stated that the turnout was the largest gross in dollars ever raised by JFS. She noted that the generosity of JFS volunteers had helped the organization reach over 5,500 individuals in need of care, 3000 of them through Teen Life Counts. She credited her staff and the board of directors for making the event such a success.
“Because of you JFS will continue the compassionate life-changing work that has been accomplished by this agency for almost 70 years,” Ungar boasted. “I firmly believe that when we reach out to someone in need, as we do every day at JFS, it allows us to touch someone’s life and show that we care as individuals and as a community.”
Ungar read a congratulatory email from incoming Federation executive director and CEO Arnie Fielkow congratulating Wainer. Ungar also acknowledged her predecessors, former JFS executive directors Julanne Issacson and Deena Gerber.
In her speech Wainer also credited Issacson and Gerber for their help and support through the years. She also acknowledged the scaling of the summit of Mt. Everest by local mountain climber Monica Kalozdi, who raised more than $100,000 for Teen Life Counts with her climb in 2005.
Wainer thanked her husband Bruce and children for their support through the years. She concluded with an admonition to tackle the dark subject of suicide as a way of combating it. Ignoring it only allows it to happen, she stated.
“By talking about suicide, we can take away the power. By shining a light on these issues, we can bring these kids out of the dark. Thank you so much and I am so humbled to be recognized for this honor ,” said at the conclusion of her acceptance speech.
Jazz music was provided by Jewish musician Joe Krown on piano with Tom Fitzpatrick on saxophone.