Patti Herrington is founder of Firefly Outreach, a nonprofit ministry dedicated to ending bullying and preventing teen suicide. Herrington, a Northeast Jackson resident, started the organization in 2014, about three years after her youngest son, Conner, committed suicide. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the ministry and about her experience.
What happened to Conner?
“On August 3, 2011, I went home and found out that my 17-year-old precious son had hung himself in his closet. I ran into the kitchen to get a knife to cut him down. I attempted to do CPR, but to no avail. Waiting for the ambulance to arrive seemed like hours. The paramedics kept working on him, but finally realized he was gone.”
How did you cope in the aftermath?
“After my son’s funeral, I went to Tennessee. I was so grief-stricken. I felt I needed to be by myself and re-evaluate my life. Where do I go from here? How can I find happiness again? How do I laugh again? I lost the most beautiful thing a parent can lose – a child. I rented a cabin for six months out in the middle of nowhere and I tried to figure out where I needed to go from there.
“As a Christian, I had been taught that if someone died by suicide, they wouldn’t go to Heaven. I cried out to God that I needed something, that I needed Him to let me know my son (was) in Heaven with Him. One night, God answered me. He spoke to me in a dream and said, ‘Patti, I’m going to let you see Conner one more time.’ I knew I was dreaming and I knew God was allowing my son to appear to me in the dream. I was conversing back and forth with God and all of a sudden, appearing in the doorway was my son.
“He didn’t say anything with his mouth, but told me, ‘I’m OK, Mom. I’m with the Lord.’ That helped me more than anything, to hear my son was with God.”
Do you know why Conner took his life?
“He was depressed and struggling with some issues. I was taking him to counseling, but there was nothing to indicate he was suicidal. The last time I took him to a counselor, the counselor said he was doing great. Two weeks later I walked into my house and found him.”
Tell me about how you started Firefly Outreach.
“I began to think about how I could turn this tragedy into something that could help others. God told me to share my story about the empty chair. I tell young people about the aftermath of suicide. I can’t begin to tell you how many young people have come to me and said they were going to take their lives, and my story changed their minds.”
The Empty Chair Story? What’s that?
“I talk about how Conner’s choice turned my world upside down. Because of his choice, I’m left with an empty chair for the rest of my life. I tell (young people) about the heartache that I went through – the devastation and trauma that came from finding my son - to help them understand that suicide is a permanent answer to a temporary problem. It’s gut-wrenching to have to relive it constantly, but it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done to help save and impact young lives.”
How many kids in Mississippi commit suicide each year?
“I don’t have that number, but we’re seeing an increase. There was a report the other day on CNBC that said teen suicide had increased from 30 to 50 percent in every state in the U.S. It is the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, and the suicide rate has doubled among middle-school students since 2007.”
Why do you think there has been such an increase?
“Most of it is because of cyber-bullying. Children get to the point where they feel it will never stop and there’s no way out. They feel trapped. I’m seeing more and more of it.
“National statistics show that over 3 million youth are bullied every year, and that often leads to suicide.”
Why is bullying such an issue? I was teased in high school and middle school and I made it through.
“When you were in high school you didn’t have social media. So when you got home, the bullying stopped. Today, when kids get up in the morning, they get on their phone and see something that was posted about them the night before. They’ll go to school and get made fun of for that. Then, they get home and get on their computers or phone again, and continue to get bullied online until they go to bed. There’s never a break from it. It never stops. That’s when depression, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness set in. They feel trapped.
“My son had a classmate that created a Facebook page called, ‘the Death of Conner Harrington.’ Social media has made things so much worse.”
What happened to the student who made that Facebook page?
“We contacted the parents, and the parents made the child take it down.”
Do you think parents should ban their kids from social media?
“I do. If I had a young child, I wouldn’t give him or her a smart phone. If I did, it would have no Internet service. It would be strictly for me to keep tabs on what he or she was doing.”
How do you get your message to students?
“We go into schools and talk to students. I talk to them about bullying and how their choices can affect the lives of others. I challenge them to be the best people they can be, to love and respect others and to treat others with value. A lot of times, students will come up and tell me they’ve thought about taking their own lives. There are also cutters, students who do physical harm to themselves, who tell me about their situations. I try to affirm (their self-worth) and get them help. It’s an amazing thing. I never dreamed I’d be doing anything like this.”
How many schools have you visited?
“I’ve probably done 30 schools, all the way from north Mississippi to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
How do you get into these schools?
“The governor (Phil Bryant) wrote a letter of endorsement for me. I send it to the principals, and that helps me get in the door. With Mississippi Young Lives Matter, a statewide campaign I’m working on, I’ve had a very good reception. Teachers and principals finally realize that (suicide and bullying) are real issues.”
How did you get the governor’s support?
“I had a friend who introduced me to First Lady Deborah Bryant. I met with her and (told) her how I was taking my message of suicide and bullying prevention to young people in Tennessee. Her family had been impacted by suicide, and she thought the program should be brought to Mississippi.”
Firefly has been instrumental in seeing the state pass some anti-bullying laws. Tell me about that.
“We worked with Rep. Steve Hopkins who wanted to get a ‘stop bullying’ license plate. He reached out to me, because I was going to schools all over the state, and we partnered on that. Gov. Bryant signed the license plate bill into law in April. Funds from the sale of the license plate will benefit Firefly.
“HB 263 was passed in the 2017 session. It was designed to amend state law to clarify what conduct is considered to be bullying, as well as to revise provisions to be included in a school district’s anti-bullying policies. The law also requires school districts to post procedures for reporting bullying on social media and to adopt policies on student suicide prevention. It was authored by Reps. Randy Boyd, Kabir Karriem and Kathy Sykes. There were a number of people who worked on it to get it through.”
What is your annual budget?
Going back to the license plates for a minute, when will Firefly start receiving proceeds from those sales?
“We have to get 300 pre-sold. Once we get those pre-sold, then they will be mass-produced and sent to the tax collector offices across the state. We just got the design approved by the state.”
A picture of the “stop bullying” license plate can be found on our Web site, at northsidesun.com.