It’s unclear what’s more surprising: that a Golf & Recreation Division Manager stepped up to front Palo Alto’s major suicide prevention initiative, or that he turned out to be an ideal choice.
Rob de Geus has worked for the city of Palo Alto for seven years. In the course of a typical day, he might debate the survival of 10 Eucalyptus trees in Baylands Park and negotiate pricing structures at the local golf course.
Or, he might console the grieving parents and friends of one of the five high school students who stepped into the path of an oncoming commuter train. The suicides, between May 2009 and last January, occurred at a railroad crossing a stone’s throw from Henry M. Gunn High School.
“I know more about teen suicide than I ever thought I would,” de Geus said with a sigh. After the first incident, he assumed a leadership role in the community-response effort, known as Project Safety Net, and began reaching out to experts to develop an effective strategy to prevent another tragedy.
Anne Ehresman, executive director of Project Cornerstone, a San Jose based nonprofit, was impressed by De Geus’s “consistent leadership and quiet commitment” during their first meeting in September 2009. “His idea for Project Safety Net was to make it something of substance rather than just a bunch of talking heads in crisis,” she said.
This dedication to helping young people has its roots in his own childhood in Melbourne, Australia. “My own teenage years were tough,” de Geus acknowledged in his soft-spoken Aussie lilt. “I remember them vividly.”
At 17, he volunteered to coordinate a church group, devoting weekends to taking 30 to 40 kids from the poorest neighborhoods on camping trips. He wanted to offer them a “safe place” to vent their fears and frustrations. His reason for helping younger teens was simple: “They have unlimited potential. I guess I wanted to help them realize this potential.”
A trade school graduate with an apprenticeship under his belt, he always intended to follow his father into the family business. But de Geus couldn’t quite shake the feeling that his true passion lay in more philanthropic pursuits than cabinet making. With a plan to return in a few years, he boarded a plane to the United States to find seasonal jobs working with young people as a waterskiing instructor or camp counselor.
As luck would have it, he met and fell in love with his future wife, a native of Palo Alto, in his early twenties while working at a summer camp. The pair later moved to her hometown, where de Geus’s experience working with teens helped him land a dream job in community services. It was an easy fit in a town that prides itself on its schools.
Last spring, everything changed. The suicides spurred Palo Alto into action. Project Safety Net harnessed this “culture of care” into a broad coalition of grass-roots volunteers and medical experts. A representative from the city, De Geus, was chosen to lead the organization with a member of the school board, Carol Zepecki.
Greg Hermann, a devoted member of Project Safety Net and a colleague in the city manager’s office, recalled working overtime with de Geus to get “the right people in the room.”
“The power of government is to be a convener,” Hermann said. “Rob and I convened all the different groups. We brought everyone together who needed to be there.”
Juggling the responsibilities of their day jobs with their commitment to suicide prevention was never easy. “We sort of became new best friends,” joked Hermann. “There were a lot of late nights and early mornings.”
To make matters more difficult, de Geus’s time has been spread increasingly thin over the years amid city budget cuts and layoffs, a response to the statewide fiscal crisis. “With a 20 percent reduction in staff, the work has been spread among those remaining,” he said.
Project Safety Net remains his top priority. Flanked by his colleagues on the executive committee, Amy Drolette and Cyndy Ainsworth, the three excitedly discussed its future one recent afternoon. “We had a call from Barrington (High School in Illinois) … currently facing a suicide cluster,” said de Geus. “They all had the Project Safety Net report in front of them.”
When a swarm of journalists descended on Palo Alto after the suicides, it was de Geus who hosted a conference to discuss the drawbacks of media attention. In March of this year, he took on television’s “Dr. Phil” by writing a letter, admonishing the talk-show host for contacting friends and family members of the victims. de Geus is passionate in his belief that reporters must write about teen suicide with sensitivity and care.
“This is the key message you need to realize,” he said, looking a reporter in the eyes. “We need to start a conversation about teen mental health. Society does not do that enough.”
De Geus has never been fully comfortable in this leadership role. Confidently discussing the difference between stress and depression – “too often they’re talked about as the same thing” — he faltered when complimented on his depth of knowledge. “I’m no expert in suicide prevention,” he said. “I stepped up reluctantly in many ways.”
“On more than one occasion I’ve raised the question of who is best to be spokesperson,” he said. “It’s not me.”
Board members beg to differ. “I can’t imagine anyone more committed to Project Safety Net than Rob,” said Cyndy Ainsworth, executive director of Kara, a grief counseling service. “He took on the responsibility of co-chairing the group on top of an already full plate.”