Zach Sumner

(Francine Sumner/Special to the Progress)

Zach Sumner, a Scottsdale teen who died of suicide in June 2017, is the inspiration behind his mother Francine Sumner’s nonprofit organization, Kid in the Corner.

Scottsdale resident Francine Sumner describes her son Zachary Sumner as kind, funny, smart, giving and thoughtful.

If he wasn’t spending his own money stuffing a bag full of dog treats and toys to give to the local humane society, he was comforting distraught students at his school, Horizon High School.

But underneath it all, Zach fought to conquer his mental illness. He often said he felt alone and that nobody cared, and in June 2017, after a two-week stint in the hospital, Zach took his own life.

“He did not want to die. He was not suicidal, but the wrong medications with the wrong diagnosis increased suicidal ideation,” Francine said. “He was in a very manic episode and made a very impulsive decision. He was sick.”

In the months following Zach’s death, Francine and fellow family members and close friends started the nonprofit organization, Kid in the Corner, to drive home one message about suicide and mental illness.

“Everybody thinks that people who are suicidal or depressed or have mental illness are sitting alone in a corner somewhere in their bedrooms, and they’re not,” Francine said.

Through Kid in the Corner, Francine wants to shatter the stigma around suicide and let people know that it’s OK to not be OK and that, more importantly, it’s OK to talk about it.

“We’re really trying to start those difficult conversations,” she said. “Little by little, it’s happening.”

Kid in the Corner held its first fundraising event at Stagebrush Theatre in south Scottsdale on Dec. 30, 2018. It quickly sold out.

“We are raising money to save kids’ lives,” said Producer Debra Rich Gettleman. “But this show is all about hope, empowerment and joy.”

The cabaret fundraiser called You Are Not Alone raised about $7,000 in ticket sales, $4,000 from attendees through the event and $7,000 prior to the event via pledges – a total of about $18,000.

“It was way beyond my expectations,” Francine said. “The message was clear and an important one. It really moved people to tears.”

Throughout the night, attendees walked up to Francine to share their stories and how the event and the nonprofit’s message have impacted their lives.

One young man told Francine that he felt alone for a long time, but after the fundraiser, he said he was moved and finally felt “a spark.”

Later, a mother told Francine that the event spawned conversations between her and her daughter.

“She said, ‘My daughter was telling me that she had anxiety and sometimes that anxiety tries to make her tell herself she’s suicidal,’ and they talked about a safe plan and what to do,” Francine said.

That night, the entire audience of 200 people recited and took the Penny Pledge, too.

It was a powerful moment Francine will never forget.

Zach was an avid coin collector, but pennies were, no doubt, his specialty as he had thousands of pennies in his room, including a bag full of 50,000 wheat pennies.

Two days before Zach’s funeral, Francine’s son, Jacob, and a group of his and Zach’s friends sat around a table picking out all of the pennies dated with the year 2000 – the year Zach was born.

“One of his friends had a drill at home. He drilled holes in them,” Francine said. “We decided to wear those pennies to remind us to live our life like Zachary.”

And thus began the Penny Pledge, a reminder that every cent counts.

Wearing the penny around your neck – or on key chains, backpacks or however it’s carried – is a physical reminder to reach out, be kind and show people they are not alone.

“The second pledge is to take care of your own mental health and to ask for help,” Francine said. “Make sure that you have some safe people in your life.”

Lastly, pennies are worn to show other people you’re a safe person to talk to.

“We will always listen. We will be a caring person,” Francine said. “It’s a simple concept, but it’s really eye-opening.”

Francine always wears Zach’s penny. His name and a semicolon are inscribed on the back.

“Semicolon means your story’s not over,” she explained, clutching the penny.

Kid in the Corner was officially established as a nonprofit in September 2018, but the idea of the organization came to Francine a month following Zach’s death.

“While Zachary was the inspiration for Kid in the Corner, it’s not about Zachary. It’s about the people still living. It’s about making sure that the next kid in the corner feels like they have resources,” she said.

Francine immediately took Kid in the Corner to Horizon High School to tell his story and share the nonprofit’s mission.

“I really felt that the kids there needed to hear it firsthand because otherwise everybody’s whispering,” she said. “It didn’t want the stigma.”

Her speech and presentation was so well-received, other Scottsdale-area schools, including Desert Springs Preparatory Elementary School and Chaparral High School, asked Francine to present at their schools.

The Kid in the Corner curriculum is now part of many schools.

Others include Horizon High School, Wildfire Elementary School and Bothell High School outside of Seattle.

“We’re even working with the Girl Scouts to incorporate Kid in the Corner activities to help girls earn their kindness badge,” said board member Debbie Popeil. “We plan to build Kid in the Corner clubs at every high school, middle school and elementary school in Arizona.”

Chaparral High plans to start a Kid in the Corner club this year, according to Francine.

At Desert Springs Prep – which Zach, Jacob and their sister Gabrielle attended – Francine gave a presentation last month, and the sixth-graders all took the Penny Pledge.

The students received a penny to wear around their necks – necklaces they continue to wear to this day.

“It is amazing to see both boys and girls wearing their pennies daily,” said Randi Posner Cutler, gifted specialist at DSPES. “The students were very moved by Francine’s talk.”

A parent of one of the sixth grade students even sent an email to her son’s teacher.

She wrote that following her son taking the pledge, Kid in the Corner has fostered important conversations at their household.

“The past 10 years in the ER, I have seen a huge increase in depression, thoughts of wanting to kill themselves and/or attempts in young kids, it’s heartbreaking,” the parent wrote. “I cannot thank you enough for supporting Zach’s mom and making a horrible situation an opportunity to educate others.”

According to a 2018 report by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 34.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported in December 2018 that suicide was the eighth leading cause of death among males in 2017. For females, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death.

Closer to home, 31 East Valley teenagers have committed suicide since July 2017 – around the same time Zach took his own life.

“We cannot sit idly by and watch this epidemic of teen suicide continue to grow,” Popeil said. “Not on our watch.”

Through Kid in the Corner and its Penny Pledge, Francine hopes it’ll encourage children, teens and young adults to spread awareness and take action to change the culture around mental illness.

“It’s, what can I, as a person, do to make this world a kinder place?” Francine said. “We’re not mental health professionals. We’re not out there telling you what the signs are to look for,” she said. “We’re saying, get out there and take care of yourself and others.”

“The battle to save my kid was overwhelming, and his loss was insurmountable,” she said. “I never want another parent to have to go through this.”