CLEVELAND — A Northeast Ohio family is making sure middle and high school students know it's OK to not be OK.
Rick and Beth Haney are tidying up the room and even making sure those living in it are well fed.
“Even just to come in and sit on the couch and sit and watch the fish seems to have a calming effect. I know personally, I’ve done aquariums for years. And I’ve got one in my office and it’s always been so wonderful to have that," said Rick.
The two are inside a room called John’s Safe Place, equipped with an aquarium, furniture and games to offer kids a place to escape when they feel stressed out.
“This room is here to inspire these kids, to comfort them, to know that there’s hope and there’s a place to go where they can find comfort and peace,” said Beth.
When students come into the room, they’ll not only get tools to start feeling better, but also words of encouragement, such as "It's OK to not be OK."
And just outside the room is a reminder of why those words are so important.
“He was always the life of the party. Always smiling, always clowning around,” said Rick.
A picture of Rick and Beth's song, John C. Haney, hangs on the wall. The fun loving young man played high school football at Fairview High School and college football at Baldwin Wallace University. But in 2017, he died by suicide.
“He never knew a stranger. Everyone was his friend. Everyone loved him and knew who he was,” said Beth, talking about her son.
“You can look at this picture, you can see the smile on his face, and that’s the way he was all the time. And they can understand that somebody like that still was struggling with some of the issues that he had to the point of losing that struggle to suicide, and quite frankly, it’s a reality check. We’ve already been told there’s some kids that come in here and once the story is told, they’ll just stand there and cry,” Rick said standing next to a picture of his son right outside of the safe place.
As the Haneys walk the halls of North Olmsted middle and high school, they’ve made it their mission to help kids like their son, creating the John C. Haney Memorial Foundation, which is dedicated to providing support and resources to prevent suicide and the stigma against mental illness.
They've worked with school districts like North Olmsted and Fairview Park to create John’s Safe Places in the middle and high school at a time when North Olmsted High School Principal Zach Weagley said COVID-19 is taking a toll on students' mental health.
“We’ve seen an increase in the issues and problems our students are presenting and dealing with just during this pandemic, we’ve seen those problems grow dramatically over the last almost calendar year,” said Weagley.
Weagley and school councilor Tricia Calloway believe these safe places can be vital in giving students an escape.
“Sometimes, that’s what kids need. They just want some space. They don’t necessarily want to talk. They want to just have some time to themselves to be able to calm down. Then when they’re calm, then they’re ready usually to talk with us and maybe work through whatever is bothering them at the time," said Calloway.
In the soon-to-be-opened high school safe place, Rick Haney writes words of encouragement for the first students to step inside.
“Just reach out. We care and there’s hope. That’s what it’s all about right there,” said Rick.
“For us, it helps us. It gives us a reason. It gives us a reason to keep on, to help others. To tell them that it is OK not to be OK,” said Beth.
And that message, they hope, will continue to grow so no child feels alone.
“We want these kids — we want them to know that we care. We want these kids to know that these counselors care. We want these kids to know that their principals care, and that they have a lot of people that they can reach out to, to get the help that they need. And they don’t have to fight this silent battle by themselves,” said Rick. “There’s not one person who would not have helped him deal with what he was dealing with, but he didn’t and this is the result, but at the same time, the result now is we’re going to help some other people.”
The family is overcoming their own tragedy by creating a place for all, leaving a reminder that their son’s story isn’t over yet.
John’s Safe Place is located in other Northeast Ohio schools, including Fairview High School and Mayer Middle School in Fairview Park.