Warning: This story contains sensitive subject matter and graphic details about suicide.
“The challenges and pressures on kids pile up faster than resources are made available,” said Kimberly Nelson-Beverly, mother of Morgan Beverly, who attended Severna Park High School (SPHS) and then Broadneck High School before taking her own life at 16 years old in January 2009.
It was a typical Sunday evening. The family was home; the children were preparing for the school week. Nothing was out of the ordinary to indicate Morgan Beverly — a vivacious and empathetic teenager who just months before helped talk a would-be jumper off the Bay Bridge — would fabricate a noose from a headscarf and take her life in her bedroom.
The moments following the realization that her daughter was gone are as vivid today as they were then for Nelson-Beverly. She stoically held her daughter’s hand in the emergency room at Anne Arundel Medical Center and promised to take care of the family and assured her daughter that everything would be OK.
But Nelson-Beverly would never again be OK. Within weeks, she threw herself into suicide awareness and prevention advocacy and created the Morgan Beverly Suicide Prevention Foundation.
“I was screaming about awareness, whenever I could and everywhere I went,” Nelson-Beverly said. “Morgan was larger than life. This couldn’t be it for her. I knew she still had a message.”
Donations to the foundation poured in, and Nelson-Beverly was a force to be reckoned with. Over the decade and a half, Nelson-Beverly, along with the foundation she founded in her daughter’s name, was responsible for bringing the Out of the Darkness Walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, to Anne Arundel County. She partnered with the QPR Institute to bring suicide training to public and private schools in Anne Arundel County. To date, Nelson-Beverly estimates 9,000 workbooks purchased by the foundation have been provided to train students, staff and administrators on the Question, Persuade and Refer model, which is a program that teaches community members how to recognize that a person may be experiencing thoughts of suicide and offer assistance until more experienced help is available. Additionally, the foundation was instrumental in supporting the University of Tennessee’s study on teen suicide in affluent areas. Every dollar was put back into the schools for suicide awareness and prevention.
Nelson-Beverly stressed the local community is better at recognizing at-risk teens and providing resources, but there’s still a long way to go.
Some residents may have heard Severna Park High School being dubbed Suicide High following a long-lasting rash of student suicides. In 2020, the Anne Arundel County Council voted to declare suicide a public health crisis, with hopes of addressing mental illness and providing more access to services for residents at risk of suicide.
After 15 years, the foundation named for Nelson-Beverly’s daughter will shut down after January 1, 2024.
“I’m tired,” Nelson-Beverly said. “The foundation was all about me being able to continue Morgan, and I think we did a pretty good job of that. I don’t think she will ever be forgotten.”
Beverly begs parents to be courageous enough to start a conversation with their children about how they are feeling and to support, not pressure, their children to a notion of excellence.
“Our parenting has to be different,” Nelson-Beverly said. “Give your kids leeway. Be patient. Listen. Don’t push. Take lots of photos. This is not a club you ever want to be in.”
It’s not a club that Larry and Sherry Leikin ever expected to join either.
Since 2016, the Leikin family has also been a strong advocate for mental health dialogue. A visual reminder of suicide awareness in the area is Ellie’s Bus, a bright orange 1978 Volkswagen that some area residents have dubbed Mystery Machine after the van used in “Scooby-Doo.”
Immediately following their daughter Ellie’s suicide in November 2015, Larry and Sherry Leikin turned confusion and grief into action to try to understand why their free-spirited daughter and student at SPHS felt she had nowhere to turn. The Leikins have used Ellie’s Bus to travel to dozens of events in Anne Arundel County to spread the message of dialogue. Some Severna Park residents may have seen the vintage VW bus at Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention, concerts, high school events and other functions where the opportunity to discuss suicide awareness is present.
“We do not know where Ellie’s Bus will take us,” said Larry Leikin during a 2016 interview with the Severna Park Voice. “But we will continue along this road and seek places where our message can be shared with those who need us.”
They have also been active behind the scenes to support a Luminis Health part-time teaching position dedicated to student inpatients.
After reading Ellie’s journal following her death, Sherry Leikin learned how fearful her daughter was about falling behind in her studies. With money received through Ellie’s Bus, the Leikins contacted the medical center to see how they could help. The result was to provide funding to cover the salary of a teacher or educational coordinator to be part of a collaborative care effort between the medical center, county schools and families. The position is funded by the foundation and the Leikin family.
“We wanted to support kids and families by building a bridge between schools and providers,” Larry Leikin said. “Academics continue to be part of the young person’s life whether they are in school or not. This teacher/educational coordinator was designed to mitigate the stress of missing school and falling behind in homework.”
Donna Phillips, clinical director of Psychiatric Day Hospital at Luminis Health J. Kent McNew Medical Center, has been part of that collaborative care team since its inception in 2016.
“The teacher/educational coordinator is an extremely valuable member of a student’s care and treatment team,” Phillips said. “From the moment a child enters the medical center, we are collaborating with the schools.”
Phillips added that access to teachers is essential for students, and she said teachers are strong proponents for the educational coordinator.
The Leikins enjoy receiving letters from kids or parents letting them know how the resource was beneficial to them.
“Reading their letters is very inspiring,” Sherry Leikin said. “I think Ellie would be proud of us and to know she still has a voice. Mental stress isn’t going to go away, so we need to keep providing resources and support.”
To donate to Ellie’s Bus, visit www.elliesbus.org.
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