Twin Cities mother turns son’s suicide into positive experiences

CIHS receives $2K grant to focus on suicide prevention

Chris Benz was a happy, fun-loving 17-year-old with his entire life ahead of him. He had a lot of friends, enjoyed sports, had a loving family and his future was bright.

Accepting the $2,000 check are CIHS Principal Mitch Clausen, school nurse Jayne Zurn, Janet Benz, baseball players Jake Sylvester and Elliott Simon and Baseball Coach Todd Smrekar.
Accepting the $2,000 check are CIHS Principal Mitch Clausen, school nurse Jayne Zurn, Janet Benz, baseball players Jake Sylvester and Elliott Simon and Baseball Coach Todd Smrekar.

However, on Jan. 11, 2007, Benz, a senior at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, took his own life. A week later his mother, Janet Benz, received his acceptance letter into college.

Now it’s Benz’s quest to make sure another family doesn’t ever go through what she’s been through.

On Friday, Dec. 7, Benz presented the Cambridge-Isanti High School a $2,000 check to be used for suicide prevention education due to the baseball team’s participation in the annual Chris Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament that takes place in the New Hope/Plymouth area each summer.

In July 2007, Benz organized the first Chris Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament as a way to spread the word about suicide prevention in a way that would reflect her son’s personality. The Cambridge-Isanti baseball team has participated in the tournament each year since its inception.

“The tournament is way to get students together from our community and beyond to focus on suicide prevention for our youth and teens and promote healthy choices,” Benz said. “During the tournament we bring in guest speakers or guest organizations that talk about suicide prevention, and I also share my personal story.”

Benz, who is a public health nurse and assistant professor at St. Catherine University in the Department of Nursing, said this is the third grant she has presented a high school since the tournament began, and gave it to CIHS as a way to show her appreciation for the team’s participation in the tournament.

For the first three years, the tournament raised money for SAVE, a national organization dedicated to suicide awareness. Over the years, word spread about the tournament and sponsorship grew.

Using the tournament as a starting point, organizers created the Chris Benz Memorial Foundation. Starting in 2010, money raised during the tournament went toward local schools to fund suicide prevention programs. Cooper High School received the first check in 2010,  with Osseo High School receiving the check the next year.

“My son was a baseball player and loved baseball,” Benz said regarding her decision to do a baseball tournament. “As a parent, you don’t want any other family to experience what we’ve been through. Suicide is a local issue, a national issue and a global issue. Suicide rates across the globe have risen in the last 10 years.”

CIHS can use the funds however they wish as long it focuses on suicide prevention. Benz said some schools use the funds to bring in a guest speaker or some use it to print educational materials.

Benz explained that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 35 the United States. However, in Minnesota, it’s the second leading cause of death, with motor vehicle accidents being the leading cause of death.

“I see suicide as a public health issue,” Benz said. “I started the baseball tournament because I wanted to take action with a focus on teenagers. As an educator, I want to help people to look at the empirical data relating to suicide.”

Benz said her son was the average American teenager.

“Chris was your typical teenager,” Benz said. “He was involved in a lot of activities, had a lot of friends and would get together with his friends and talk about girls and sports. My message to teenagers is to be there for your friends. The research shows that youth won’t tell an adult if they’re going through some hard times, so our kids really need to be there for one another and learn about suicide warning signs.”

Benz said when she presents on suicide prevention she asks the students to remember “ACT,” which stands for: Ask their friends how they’re doing – Show Care and Compassion – Tell someone.

“Youth are our future and this baseball tournament promotes healthy communities,” Benz said. “It also allows families to network with other families that have experienced suicide. This tournament is really about bringing people together.”