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Newberg woman's yard signs with encouraging phrases a reaction to growing suicide trend locally

(Editor's note: This is the fourth in a long-term series of stories)

If you've driven around, taken your bike for a ride or gone for a long walk through Newberg over the past three weeks or so, you've likely encountered phrases like "Don't Give Up," "Your Mistakes Don't Define You" or "You Are Worthy of Love."

There is nothing else on simple black-and-white yard signs that have popped up on lawns across Newberg — no name, website address or phone number — because the messages are meant to speak for themselves and nothing more.GARY ALLEN - Newberg residents Amy Wolff and Jessica Brittell have teamed up to produce and distribute signs with messages of encouragement like 'Don't give up' and 'Your mistakes don't define you' in response to the prevalence of suicide in the community.

They're simply words of encouragement put out into the world just in case someone might need them.

They're out there because when Newberg resident Amy Wolff learned from local teachers that youth in area have been attempting and committing suicide at an alarming rate, she couldn't just do nothing.

With her husband and two young daughters, Wolff put out 20 signs around town and within days, a buzz developed on local Facebook pages and she was identified as the driving force.

A torrent of requests for signs followed and, with some help from a local graphic designer, it wasn't long before Wolff established a website (www.dontgive upsigns.com) in order to sell them at cost and meet the demand.

Signs have already been delivered to places as far away as California and Montana and, as of Monday, the total number of signs ordered hit 500.

"I had no idea how perfect so many pieces were, why it worked so well," Wolff said. "I really couldn't have planned it. It just happened."

"You don't do just nothing," was actually the phrase that crossed Wolff's mind after having a conversation with friends in her reading group about recent suicides and suicide attempts.

It comes from the controversial Netflix show "13 Reasons Why" about a high school student who commits suicide, but Wolff immediately connected it with an idea she had been mulling over for a couple of years.

She was first inspired to post some kind of affirmative yard sign after reading "Love Does" by Bob Goff, which extols making extravagant acts of love to others, even strangers, as a reflection of God's love. Around the same time, she also read "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brene Brown, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago, however, that she felt compelled to act.

"I thought now is the time," Wolff said. "The message is for everyone."

Wolff reached out on Facebook for help with lowering her printing costs and local business owner Jessica Brittell, who owns the Velour clothing store in Newberg and does graphic design work on the side, responded and was quickly on board after learning about Wolff's idea.

"She's been amazing," Wolff said. "She was the enabler. I had a dream and she's the one who said I could make it happen."

While Wolff felt called to act because of suicide in the community, Wolff said they are applicable and seem to have resonated with a wide group of people for a variety of reasons.

For her personally, "Don't Give Up" is what she heard from friends when she was struggling in her marriage and she says "Your Mistakes Don't Define You" seems to have hit a chord with a lot of people.

"Don't give up is kind of cliché, but at the same time there is a lot of weight and it can mean different things to so many different people," Brittell added.

Wolf also witnessed the drowning of her older brother when she was 14 years old and says empathy has been a big part of her life ever since.

"I very quickly had to discern what's life really about and people had the best intentions, but said the worst things," Wolff said. "People just don't know what to do with grief."

Most of the feedback about the signs has come via Facebook or the website, but Wolff and Brittell have also launched an Instagram page (dontgiveupsigns). One of her early Facebook posts about the idea received more than 1,500 likes and 600 shares.

"Some Newberg families who have lost members recently to suicide have said they just want to be a part of something that spreads hope and gave money," Wolff said. "That was super meaningful."

Wolff also felt immediately supported when she began knocking on doors and asking permission to post those first 20 signs.

"I wasn't sure how people would react and people were so quick when they heard it was not a company, not an organization, not a church," Wolff said. "There are zero strings attached to this. It was just a young family. I think part of the reason it exploded was that there was a lot of trust and no skepticism."

The pair added stickers and car decals to the site last week, then handed out more than 200 stickers and 400 cards at the Saturday Portland Market. Signs with new phrases like "You Matter" and "You Are Not Alone" have also been added to the site.

She and Brittell considered starting a nonprofit to help with the logistical aspects of the project, but ultimately decided that it felt more like a movement.

"The influence and fruit could be much more broad and wide because I've chosen not to own it," Wolff said. "People can copy it all they want. I just want people to be encouraged."

At the same time, she understands that people are placing a lot of trust in her, as people and organizations have made some significant donations, so she wants to be as responsible and transparent as possible.

Several organizations, including the Newberg School District, the county and George Fox University have been working together in an effort to better connect people who are struggling with mental health issues and suicide ideation to the services that can help them.

Part of that effort has been to foster a frank and open discussion about suicide and Wolff likes that her idea, even if the impact is small, can be considered part of a wider response by the community.

"I think there is power in numbers and that 20 signs is great, but 350 is more," Wolff said. "One voice is great, but a whole community of voices together is better. So to be contributing somehow, in some little part, feels right."

One message Wolff received, from a mother who drove by one of the signs with her daughter in the car, hammered that point home for her. The mother relayed to her that seeing the sign led to a conversation about why the message on the sign matters.

"If this can open it up and make people talk about hard, messy things, the less shame we feel, the less secrecy we are, the more alert we are, just all good things," Wolff said.

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