SCARBOROUGH — Eastpoint Christian Church in South Portland was expected to be filled to its 1,400-seat capacity Thursday with people grieving the loss of a high school senior who made a big impact in a short time.
Sam Mercer, 18, overcame several challenges in his life before he committed suicide April 6.
He was born in Ethiopia, and lost his left leg to an infection that required amputation when he was less than a month old. His father put him in an orphanage when he was 6. His adoptive American parents gave him up after three years. He lived in a variety of Colorado foster homes and schools before his second adoptive father, Daniel Mercer, brought him to Scarborough last fall.
At Scarborough High School, Mercer inspired many with his skills on the wrestling mat, his role as manager of the football team and his ability to write compelling rap lyrics. He was passionate about cooking, worked at a local restaurant and had been accepted to Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island.
A gofundme page was set up by Scarborough resident Taylor Banks, and, as of April 12, had raised almost $20,000 for a memorial to Mercer.
“Everyone who knew him, talked to him, and got to experience his presence can’t begin to explain their grief,” Banks said on the website. “His classmates, family and friends are deeply saddened and want to make sure Sam is remembered in the best way possible.”
Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger described the mood at the school Wednesday as somber.
“It’s heartbreaking and tragic,” she said, adding the students are “amazing” and really focusing on how to celebrate Mercer’s life.
Kukenberger said all staff are required to undergo suicide prevention training every two years.
She said the training, facilitated by health teachers and a school nurse, covers available resources, prevention and also how to detect risks and warning signs such as substance use, anxiety and hopelessness.
Kukenberger said one in seven teens in the state contemplate suicide, and the school has to think deeply about suicide prevention. You “never know somebody’s story,” she said.
Part of the training deals with how to help people get help, when to call in a crisis team, and who to notify of situations.
In a letter sent to the school community, Kukenberger said the school’s efforts at this time are focused on supporting the Mercer family, students, staff and community. A Crisis Response Team developed a support and communication plan for students and staff, and throughout the week had trained counselors available to meet with students.
The school crisis team, which first met Saturday morning, April 7, after learning of Mercer’s death, consists of Kukenberger, high school Principal David Creech, the school resource officer, the director of athletics, and guidance counselors and social workers at the school.
The school will also host a presentation for the community on suicide prevention at 6 p.m. April 24 in the Wentworth School cafeteria. The evening will be facilitated by Greg Marley, a clinical director at the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Maine, who was consulting with school staff throughout the week.
Kukenberger said the talk will be an opportunity to ask questions, discuss the loss for the community, and increase awareness of the risk of future tragedies. The discussion is for anyone who wants to support suicide prevention, and will be appropriate for students in grades 6-12 who wish to accompany their parents.
“Marley will address the grief following an unexpected student death, and the different ways we can care for ourselves, our students, and our community in the aftermath of this tragedy,” she said.
Sam Mercer at wrestling practice at Scarborough High School last December.