Combating suicide with hearts, Harleys

Activist: A Rodgers Forge woman is teaming up with local motorcycle riders to call attention to a deadly scourge.

October 02, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Lisa Hurka Covington fought for emergency phones to be installed on the Bay Bridge, hoping someone intending to jump might instead call for help. She traveled to the Capitol in Washington, carrying quilts with pictures of men, women and children who took their own lives and calling for more money for suicide-prevention programs. She persuaded six Maryland school systems to print crisis hot line numbers on the back of student ID cards.

Propelled by personal tragedy - her 28-year-old sister shot herself dead in 1991 - Covington has become an insistent voice in public policy debates surrounding guns, mental health and, more than anything else, suicide education.

"I think she's a force of nature," said Rowland L. Savage, coordinator of guidance and counseling services for Baltimore County schools. "She's just the kind of person you read about in leadership books. She has vision, a strong sense of mission."

Now the Rodgers Forge woman has persuaded a band of Harley-Davidson riders to join her efforts in suicide prevention. Dozens of bikers are expected to wind through Harford and Baltimore counties this morning in a combination motorcycle rally and card game. The "Poker Run" is designed to raise money for SPEAK (Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids), an organization Covington helped found five years ago.

"We just think what she's doing is great," said Betty Reber, an officer with the Ladies of Harley division of the Baltimore County Metropolitan Harley Owners Group. She said her club wants to help alert parents to be on guard for signs of suicidal thoughts in their children.

Covington, a 49-year-old with a grown son, helps with her husband's plumbing business. But she's found being an activist is more than a full-time job.

"People don't want to hear that word - suicide," she says. "It's been a battle."

After her sister's death, Covington began speaking out against gun violence, at one point serving as a spokeswoman for the Rev. Willie E. Ray's Baltimore Coalition to Stop the Killing. She frequently marched for stricter gun-control laws.

Gradually, though, she became more focused on mental health education. In 1999, she and three other women who met at Seasons, a local support group for people whose loved ones committed suicide, formed SPEAK. It now serves as the greater Baltimore affiliate of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"We didn't want to just sit in a support group anymore," said Lee Tolzman, a SPEAK co-founder who lost her youngest son, John, to suicide in 1985 when he was 12 years old. "Every month, we'd see someone new coming into the group who lost a child to suicide. We wanted to do something to prevent it."

In 1995, Covington started lobbying state officials to install phones on the Bay Bridge and the Key Bridge. Besides being used by motorists with car troubles, the phones could be a lifeline to people considering jumping off the bridges, she and other mental health advocates said. Maryland Transportation Authority officials agreed to install them in 2001.

"She's absolutely tenacious," said Barbara Bellack, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Maryland, who worked with Covington pressing officials for the phones.

Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, whose campaigns Covington worked on, said, "She doesn't give up easily."

Covington also lobbied successfully to have six county public school systems, including Baltimore County's, print the 24-hour Maryland Crisis Hotline phone number on the back of students' photo ID cards. For Covington, who frequently speaks to school groups, her greatest success was described in a letter from a city high school student who said she had considered killing herself but decided against it.

"I knew then that I saved someone," Covington said. "When you're speaking and doing all these things, you don't know - you just hope you're helping."

Lately, she's been meeting with health officials about printing crisis hot line numbers on hospital patients' discharge papers. This month she is to participate in the governor's conference on suicide prevention and a memorial walk to call attention to suicide education.

Today, the Harley riders plan to travel a winding 125-mile course, starting at a Harley-Davidson store on Pulaski Highway in Rosedale and including stops at Susquehanna, Rocks and Gunpowder Falls state parks, where they'll have cards stamped. Back at the store, they'll play poker. Registration begins at 9 a.m. Proceeds from the $15 entry fees will benefit SPEAK.

Unsure of how the weather might affect the turnout (the rain date is Oct. 9), Reber says she's not sure how much the event will raise. To Covington it didn't matter.

"When she came to us, she just wanted us to ride to call attention to the problem," Reber said.

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