It’s not new news that Montana’s suicide rate ranks as one of the highest in the nation and residents of the Flathead Valley are all too aware of what it feels like to live in that reality. And while they were founded over 20 years ago and remain the only organization solely focused on suicide prevention, the Nate Chute Foundation is growing, evolving, and optimistic as they continue to support their community.
When 1999 Whitefish High School graduate Nate Chute unexpectedly took his own life just weeks before attending Montana State University, his parents, Terry Chute and Jane Kollmeyer immediately felt called to process their grief through action to prevent further loss. Soon after Nate’s passing, his parents established the Nate Chute Foundation and registered the organization’s 501(3)c nonprofit status. Quite literally a kitchen table organization, the board consisted mainly of friends of the family who were looking for a way to bring about change and prevent further tragedy.
In the early years, NCF provided funding for specialty training for teachers, local clergy, and police officers; suicide prevention commercials on local television stations; the Whitefish High School ROPES program; Whitefish CARE; depression screening for students; and mental health counseling. As the organization thrived and local donations spoke to community’s desire for more support, they hired their first paid employee, an Executive Director, in 2017.
Today, the foundation has three full time employees, two part time employees and a volunteer board of directors made up of nine community members. I spoke with Kacy Howard, Executive Director; Jenny Cloutier, Program Director; and Nicci Daniher, Development Director, recently about the local nonprofit and how they are working to promote mental wellness and reduce suicide in our community. I was moved by the dedication of these three native Montana women who are committed the mission of the NCF. They are all Certified QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Instructors, which is the most widely taught training in the world as an emergency response to someone in crisis and can save lives.
Howard, who was born and raised in the Flathead Valley and a close friend of Nate’s in high school, has been at the helm of NCF since 2017. Before working with the foundation, Howard spent nearly a decade working in community mental health. Howard oversees all of NCF’s operations including programs, fundraising, and nonprofit and board governance. And, while she loves the behind-the-scenes work of helping NCF thrive, she says that the most impactful and energizing part of her work is getting to connect with the humans in our community and help cultivate safe spaces to have really difficult conversation about the real-life issues that we all face. “There’s something cathartic and healing about getting to call on the grief and loss that has been a part of my story to help others find hope in their own,” Howard says.
After living and working as a mental health therapist for three years in Australia, Daniher is grateful to be back in her hometown. She has a Master’s Degree in Advanced Clinical Social Work from Columbia University. Daniher saw how many of her classmates, including herself, suffered from depression and anxiety in high school and was drawn to the idea of utilizing her long-standing relationships in the Valley, along with her knowledge of mental illness, to support the NCF through development and fundraising. “I want to change the climate and improve the wellbeing in our schools for my own kids and the future generations.”
As one might imagine, working in the realm of suicide prevention can take its toll. Especially after experiencing a suicide cluster in 2021 in which 10 local youth took their own lives, NCF knew that there was opportunity to grow their programs to help better meet community needs. After soul searching and researching, the organization decided to move into the space of resilience building and upstream prevention: instead of just focusing on risk factors, warning signs and how to help a friend with suicidal ideation, they wanted to be able to add selfcare strategies to their offerings. Howard explained, “In some ways, traditional suicide prevention efforts are too focused on crisis mitigation. We believe that we need to start looking upriver and do more resilience building work to help people have the skills and connections so that they hopefully don’t get to that crisis moment, or when they do, they are at least better prepared with some tools and skills to navigate that place."
In order to expand programming, it was necessary to bring in new staff. After serving on the NCF board for two years, Jenny Cloutier joined the team. Her Master’s of Education and Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, as well as also being a lifelong resident of the Flathead Valley, brought a familiarity with schools and strong connections to other nonprofits and businesses in the Valley. Said Cloutier, “I love that the programs we offer are free of charge. From removing financial barriers for those in need of professional services to providing over 2000 local students with suicide prevention training to implementing prevention strategies in local organizations and businesses – we are really looking to create a community that is aware and competent.” She added, “Mental health does not discriminate. It affects us all.”
School presentations are the largest program at the NCF. Presentations are facilitated in 7th and 9th grade health classrooms across Flathead Valley. The classroom setting allows these discussions and trainings, using evidence-based curriculum, to be held in a smaller setting where students feel more comfortable asking questions and adults can be aware if any young person seems to be struggling with the content. Topics covered include how to start and manage difficult conversations about mental health, healthy self-care, and coping strategies, and how to reach out for help.
In 2022, the Nate Chute Foundation:
I asked about the series of PSAs that are on the foundation’s website that I found to be very powerful. Daniher explained that while these stories were launched during COVID to reach people that were missing day-to-day contact, the messages have proved to be effective tools and stories of hope even after the pandemic. The series is called From Surviving to Thriving: Stories of Hope & Resilience and I’d encourage you to take a look.
The stories are told by local members of the community in hopes that they will inspire you to remember to never give up hope, that help is available, and recovery is possible. We are all in this together.
As we wrapped up, Howard remarked that Nate’s parents continue to be involved in the foundation. “They turned a tragedy into something that helps the community.” She praised their passion and dedication.
Although it’s hard to know the value of all the foundation does, Cloutier added “The support the community has shown is amazing. People believe in what we do.”
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - Text or Call 988
Community Access to Services: NCF offers financial assistance to help those in need access critical therapeutic services and support.
We provide funding for youth and adults to receive preventative counseling, postvention counseling for individuals and families impacted by a suicide, and funding for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) through Logan Health Whitefish Behavioral Health.
Community Training: NCF offers five different evidence-based prevention curriculums free of charge to business and organizations.
Trainings for Schools: NCF provides health class presentations, educator professional development, and policy & procedure consulting.
What can you do?