Alex Hammac and Alena Riedel hope folks see beauty in the items they fashion from old jewelry and sell to raise funds for suicide prevention.
But the two Caro Middle School students also hope to impress on shoppers that everyone can start anew.
“About a year ago I lost an uncle to suicide,” said Alena, 11, who joined with Alex, 12, to form Begin Again Jewelry months after Chris Searles Jr., 30, of Fairgrove took his own life Oct. 21, 2017.
“We wanted to stop the stigma (of mental illness), so we had people donate broken or unwanted jewelry, and we either fixed it up, cleaned it or made it new,” said Alena, of Tuscola County’s Wells Township and daughter of Shawn and Rachel Riedel.
“We sell it by donations for whatever you think is fair, and all proceeds go to suicide prevention,” Alena said.
The girls have teamed up since September in their fundraising efforts, but they and their family members plan to take it a couple steps further, planning an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Caro Church of Christ, 1690 Mertz Road.
Customers can meet the girls and view their creations, and purchase jewelry. Snacks and refreshments will be available.
In 2017, more than 1,400 people died by suicide in Michigan, a 39 percent increase from the year 2000, according to Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Alex, daughter of Christina Hammac, 49, of Caro, said the girls and their parents are planning a suicide-prevention walk in September in Tuscola County. They attended such a walk in Lansing earlier this year.
“We did that to show that we care,” Alex said. “People who commit suicide feel like nobody cares, and at that walk in Lansing there were over 1,000 people. It was crazy because (suicide victims) thought that people didn’t care, and there were over 1,000 people there.”
The sixth-grade girls’ business, founded in the fall, realized $980 in revenue in the final three months of 2018, according to Shawn Riedel. The students sold items at several bazaars in addition to attending several suicide-prevention events.
“They’re going to start doing home shows, like all these other jewelry companies,” Shawn said.
Whie the Riedels and Christina Hammac help their daughters prepare, repair or clean jewelry prior to selling it, Alex and Alena have helped each other for years.
“About eight years ago, me and my mom and my two brothers moved up here from Florida,” Alex said. “Alena was the first friend I made up in Michigan.”
Rachel Riedel said the girls, friends since age 3, “have more of a sister relationship.”
The girls recalled the late Chris Searles Jr. as a fun-loving fellow who joked with them. Shawn Riedel remembers Searles’ loyalty and generosity.
“He was kind of my right-hand guy when it came to working on the house, or remodeling, or yard work,” Shawn said. “No matter what it was I could always call him and count on him, and he’d be right here to help me.”
Shawn said he was shocked to learn of Searles’ death, adding his brother-in-law didn’t speak of any suicidal thoughts to him.
“That’s what we want to stop,” Christina said. “We want people to know there’s always somebody out there to talk to.”
Alex and Alena wear teal-colored T-shirts – hand-painted by Rachel – bearing the phrase “Give Yourself Time” on the front, with an artificial butterfly ironed on each shirt. Images of a caterpillar and a cocoon also adorn each shirt.
“There’s the caterpillar and then the cocoon and you turn into a butterfly – and the idea of that is that to become what you’re supposed to become, you might have to go through darkness,” Rachel said.
“Mental illness and suicide has a stigma to it, where people are ashamed that they have a problem and instead of getting help, they’re dying by suicide. They’re losing their fight to mental illness.”
If you are in crisis, or know someone who needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now at 800-273-8255. Information is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Rachel said she’d like to form a “survivors’ group” of Tuscola County residents dealing with friends’ or relatives’ suicides. She and her husband, along with Christina, occasionally pitch in to clean or work on jewelry.
“We’re hoping to get a whole bunch out for the (Feb. 16) open house, so we’re working hard right now to get ready for that,” Rachel said.
She said the girls have donated money to two area families to help pay for funerals of those who died due to suicide. Begin Again Jewelry also has donated funds to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and to the Tuscola County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
Readers may follow Alex and Alena’s efforts on the “Begin Again Jewelry” page on Facebook. One woman donated more than 100 pounds of old jewelry, Shawn said.
“We’ve had a huge outpouring of donations,” Christina said. “A lot of people have donated to help them out.”
The idea behind the business, Rachel said, “is to reuse everything, because it was the girls’ idea was that you could remake anything and become new again.”
“How often do you see 11-year-old and 12-year-old girls that say, ‘Hey, this is something we need to do; we need to make a difference in our community’?” Shawn said.
Alex and Alena also wrote messages on about 120 Christmas cards as volunteers for The Angel Card Project, which sends cards to those in need.
“I love their desire to help,” Christina said. “It’s a good thing to instill, and especially at a young age.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.