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Jefferson Award winners, August 2019: Kurt and Teri Ellefson

MONROE (WKOW) — Kurt and Teri Ellefson are changing the conversation in Monroe about mental illness and suicide.

It’s a mission they started after their son took his own life.

“He was an All-American boy so to speak. He was doing very well academically, he was socially adjusted, had a great group of friends,” said Kurt.

14-year-old Jacob Ellefson seemed to be on the right path.

“He was kind of the class clown,” says his mom Teri. “He was always the one making the jokes, making people laugh.”

But on the inside, Jacob was struggling.

“If I would’ve known this was gonna happen, we would’ve reached out, would’ve gotten him the services he needed to help him. We didn’t know,” said Kurt.

Jacob took his own life in his Monroe home on June 7, 2012, leaving his parents broken.

“When you lose a child,” said Teri, “it literally takes a part of your soul away. It’s just no longer there.”

“Every single day I think of him,” said Kurt. “It will never end. My love and my thought process will never stop thinking about him or loving him.”

It’s that love that inspired them to carry on Jacob’s memory.

“Our community supported us so we wanted to be able to support our community back,” said Teri.

A year after his death, they started Jacob’s SWAG Foundation, SWAG standing for Support with Awareness and Giving.

“The first year we brought in one speaker, just to the Monroe district. The feedback was amazing,” said Teri.

From there, the outreach grew. They started funding programs at schools to increase awareness of suicide and bullying prevention and mental illness.

Joe Monroe is the Director of Pupil Services for Monroe schools. He said, “Our data indicates that the programs that we put in place over the last seven years have made a significant difference. The number of office discipline referrals that we have, which is the number of times that kids have behavioral issues, those have gone down by almost 50% during that time. The number of bullying instances have been reduced by half. The reports of satisfaction by students have gone up.”

The foundation has also given out more than $26,000 in scholarships.

“We just want to give kids that extra encouragement to know that they’re important and they can make a difference,” says Teri.

That’s also the goal of buddy benches they’ve donated throughout the area.

“If they see someone sitting on the bench, they go up and talk to that student and get them involved in some of their activities,” says Kurt.

But the foundation’s impact goes beyond local schools. They started offering free support groups to people who have lost a loved one to suicide or attempted suicide themselves.

They also host community events like Lighting up the Dark.

“You don’t have to be in the dark with mental illness. You just need to talk about it and you have this amazing community that will stand by you,” said Teri.

They also passed that message along to farmers, through hundreds of appreciation bags to combat the rising suicide rate in the agriculture industry.

Ben Huber is with the Green County Farm Bureau. “Just that little ‘thank you’ went an awful long way. If there’s additional conversation that stemmed along from that, as far as how things are going or not going, just somebody else to talk to I think really matters in our Ag industry today.”

Kurt said, “This is the most difficult story that any parent or any family could face. If you can tell the story and get the information out there and make a difference, then there’s no doubt you must inform people and you must help.”

“Unfortunately on June 7 we started living every parents worst nightmare,” said Teri. “If we can just help one set of parents get through and help their kids then it’s worth it.”

Kurt and Teri hope to expand their reach even further. The foundation will launch a phone app in the fall to immediately connect people with mental health resources and help if they need it.

Jacob’s SWAG Foundation will be hosting another fundraising event on Saturday, September 7. For more information on attending or how to help, click here.

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