A daughter, a sister, a friend, a student, an artist, and a hippie at heart. There were many ways that loved ones related to 16-year-old Ellie Leikin, but her parents, Larry and Sherry, hope that in the aftermath of her suicide, she will play one other very important role — a catalyst for change.
“Our sole wish now is that no family has to go through what we’re going through – and that Ellie’s death has as much meaning as her life,” Larry said in his eulogy delivered at Ellie’s funeral on December 2, when about 2,000 people turned out to say goodbye to a young woman who had made all their lives a little bit brighter.
Ellie — formally Eleanor Ruth Leikin — was a junior at Severna Park High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society and known for delivering upbeat messages during morning announcements over the P.A. system, encouraging her peers to make their school a better place, even if it was in a simple act like smiling at a stranger.
“She was very outgoing and very in-tune with how people felt,” Sherry said. “She was all about a positive message.”
So bright was Ellie’s personality that nobody noticed the darkness she fought inside her, and for that reason, her parents hope to spread a message of awareness to both children and parents. “We want to take the stigma out of mental illness,” Larry said. “If you had cancer, you would seek treatment. There’s no difference between mental health and physical health.”
So Larry and Sherry have emphasized to parents to talk to their children, and for children to talk to their parents, and for friends to be aware of one another, and for those who are hurting to seek help. Their long-term hope is to set up a nonprofit organization for suicide education and prevention. “There’s a want to do something in a proactive way,” Larry said. “People are hopeful that this will help do something good and prevent another tragedy.”
Already, the community has stepped up to help the Leikins share their message. Ron Foster, pastor of Severna Park United Methodist Church and a friend of Sherry, helped establish the Ellie Leikin Memorial Fund (www.severnaparkumc.org/ellie-leikin-memorial-fund), which Foster described as an “in-between” way for funds to be stored until a formal organization can be established. “It’s important to know that the funds go back into the community to aid prevention,” Foster said. “We want to let [Ellie’s] witness be turned to something good.”
The Leikins also plan to pay tribute to Ellie’s love of music by holding a concert where friends and family can not only honor Ellie but also hear her message. The event — which would be financed separately from the money raised by the memorial fund — is still in the early stages, but details can be followed at www.elliesbus.org, a website named for the bright orange Volkswagen bus that Ellie proudly drove. Her parents explained that Ellie had long wanted a VW bus, and she was thrilled to receive the classic hippie car as a gift for making National Honor Society. Now the Leikins hope the car, nicknamed The Mystery Machine in reference to “Scooby Doo,” will serve as a symbol of their mission to “take the mystery out of suicide” and encourage teens to be more aware and open.
Although nothing definitive has been established, the Leikins have many ideas on how they will use the funds they have generated, all of which focus on education and prevention — with an even greater emphasis on the latter, according to Larry.
The public response, the Facebook posts and messages, and the 2,000 people who attended Ellie’s funeral all reflected that she was a young woman who touched many, many lives. But equally important is the effect her memory will continue to have, as Larry and Sherry emphasized in their eulogy. “Parents: Love your kids. Hug your kids. Talk to your kids. Talk to your kids about Ellie and what happened,” Larry said, delivering the words that he and Sherry wrote together. “Kids: love yourselves, love your parents and tell them everything — reach out if you’re in pain.
“Let’s come together as a community to ensure that this tragedy does not happen ever again.”