Save a teen: Be available

Published 10:31 pm Monday, August 24, 2009

I am writing this editorial nearly a year after the death of a young woman I loved and will miss everyday. She was like a daughter to me and my family.

On August 31, 2008, the telephone brought the disturbing news of the untimely death of a close friend and former classmate of my daughter’s. She was found dead from an overdose. I’m not sure if it was accidental or intentional.

“Donna” was a Lakeland graduate of 2004. It was her artistic talent that allowed Donna to graduate with honors. Her potential was overflowing. She created unique textured artwork that was superior in originality.

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Her creativity was amazing, and she had a promising future in the world of art. When she held an art show, nearly all of her pieces sold. I knew she’d be successful.

Donna was the only child of divorced parents, but she lived with her father, an exceptional man. Naturally, during the high school years, all girls need their mothers for guidance. Her mother was semi-absent in her personal life, so Donna spent most of her time at our house. She was my daughter’s best friend, and like another sister to my younger son.

When I first met Donna, she was a freshman on the fast track to an awesome future as a talented artist. She had hopes of going away to a great art school, perhaps in California. She always wore a beautiful bright smile, but her confidence was low. She couldn’t see her inner and outer beauty.

I told her that I saw a beautiful young woman with bright blue eyes, an effervescent smile and a personality to match. She had a genuine gift of laughter that was contagious. I told her — every chance I had — that she had a wonderful future ahead.

My daughter and Donna’s lives went different ways a few years out of high school. I tried to maintain contact with Donna, but as things would have it, she got herself into a few situations she thought were unmanageable, situations that frustrated her and threatened her direction.

By the time we saw one another, things were bad, and getting worse. She’d been involved in two accidents, because she was under the influence, and she was facing heavy probation and possible jail time. These obstacles were difficult, and Donna was scared.

I pray that my story is read by young teenagers and their parents, even the separated ones. Parents should stop what they’re doing, and wherever their children are, call if you must; walk into another room, if that’s where they are; and tell your children that you love them, unconditionally. Another thing to let them know is that whatever they may be going through, they can always trust you to be there, no matter what.

I’ve met so many young people who have shared some of their personal stories, and whom I’ve guided as much as an outsider should/could. Your children can only reach so far, and then you have to reach back.

I want parents to be accountable because, like Donna, there are so many other young, beautiful, and amazing children who are crying out for their parents.

Unfortunately, no one will ever have the chance to know this woman the way my family did, nor will they miss her the way I will — forever.

TONI KIHNTOPF is a guest columnist.