I was walking in a small town on the island of Kauai last February when I received a call from Peter. After some small talk, Peter told me that the Princeton Club of Chicago wanted to award the John Fish ’55 Distinguished Service to the Community Award to Ginny and me for our work on behalf of Erika’s Lighthouse (ELH). I started crying. Peter was silent and I wondered what he was thinking. I tried to explain, but I think my emotional reaction prevented an eloquent explanation, until now. Three of my great loves in my life, Princeton University, Erika’s Lighthouse, “a Beacon of Hope for Adolescent Depression”, and my family, especially Erika, her sisters, and her mother, were melded together by Peter’s offer, unleashing an overwhelming feeling of Love.

With the help of many friends and family, ELH was born out of great need 16 years ago after the loss of our 14 years old daughter, Erika. From the very beginning, we decided we wanted to help as many kids as possible who were suffering from this illness called “depression”. We came to the conclusion that the best way to do so would be to develop depression awareness programs for use by our middle and high schools. Programs that were inclusive, positive, empathetic, and educational. We also started powerful conversations about breaking stigmas surrounding depression and mental health issues. ELH was and will always be determined to “Get Depression Out of the Dark”. Over the last 16 years, we have maintained our goal to help as many kids as possible by educating teens about depression using hopeful, helpful, and positive messaging:

Depression is a common physical illness; it is not your fault; you are not alone, and you can get the medical help that you need in order to live as happy a life as possible.

We also believe that education about depression awareness and destigmatizing it is suicide prevention. ELH is now using the 4th or 5th generation of the ELH developed, evidence-informed, data-driven professionally reviewed and prepared, video-based curricula for middle and high schools. ELH has a highly leveraged business model in which we supply free and flexible lesson plans and videos to the schools, and teach the teachers how to teach the programs. The “stars” of the videos in our programs are a very diverse group of real teens (not hired actors) who tell their own stories of their struggles with depression in an honest, believable, hopeful, and helpful way.

From the beginning, with the help of Erika’s many friends, we realized that peer to peer education is a much more powerful and effective communication tool to reach and help kids than only having some guy, like me, lecturing the class. And now listen to this, which is very important for all of us to appreciate tonight.

In 2004 one ELH curriculum program was being used by one middle school in Winnetka, Illinois. In the last school year of 2019/2020 ELH middle school and high school programs were used in over 530 schools in 39 states and 3 foreign countries, reaching over 218,000 students.

How in the world did we do that?

We did it because:

1) We have the best school depression products, probably in the USA, and maybe the world.

2) Unfortunately, the need for our programs in our society is extremely high.

3) And because we have had a lot of help from people like you.

Please go to our website (https://www.erikaslighthouse.org) to learn more about ELH, and please support us if you can. Also, please realize that our work has just begun. There are many other schools and many other kids who need the help of ELH to learn that they are not alone and deserve to feel better.

It is that challenge that has driven our expansion in the face of adversity and seen opportunity in crisis. Throughout the pandemic we have seen teens struggling like never before, finding themselves lost in a world turned upside down by a health crisis and often mental health emergencies. We heeded the call and by mobilizing our wonderful staff and supporters we have – been able to:

  • Offer immediate resources for educators, teens, and parents through our “We’re In This Together” campaign.
  • Developed over 100 new resources for educators to navigate our new reality for the coming year. Created a new remote learning program specific to the needs of youth at home.
  • Created a new program for 4th and 5th grades with our hopeful messaging and good help seeking focus.

I want to make one final thank you that encompasses why we are here tonight, and why ELH exists. I am going to give a thank you on behalf of all the kids educated and helped by our programs. Thank you ELH for helping us understand this physical illness, which they call depression so that we could get the help we needed to live as happy a life as possible.

Thank you also, from some of us, for saving our lives.

Tom Neuckranz, Founder of Erika’s Lighthouse