Love is bigger than suicide 

In the deaths of two kids, one west-side church saw a calling

click to enlarge 'Dr. E' says he wants to focus on building community. - J. ADRIAN STANLEY
  • J. Adrian Stanley
  • 'Dr. E' says he wants to focus on building community.

Pastor Eric Sandras, or "Dr. E" as he's affectionately known, sees the hand of God everywhere.

When his 2-year-old Sanctuary Church needed a home, it was gifted the cavernous old brick building at 1930 W. Colorado Ave. that once housed Bethany Baptist. When he wanted to begin feeding the needy, a parishioner gave him the money to buy all new appliances for the old church kitchen. Despite moving to this building with about 60 people and no idea how he'd pay the bills, he's never had to dip into savings and his flock has grown to around 220 people.

But the way Sandras sees it, God isn't just there to hand out presents. Thus, when two eighth-graders at West Middle School completed suicide this spring, Sandras believed it was no coincidence that the school was within tossing distance of his church. He called the school to ask how he could help.

Over the summer, Sanctuary let Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention host two meetings on its grounds for West parents struggling to help their kids cope. The nondenominational church took the money it was going to use to decorate its own administrative offices and instead used it to give West's teachers lounge a full redo. After hearing that a lot of West parents couldn't afford counseling for their kids, Dr. E thought he could do something about that problem as well.

Coincidentally — or perhaps not coincidentally — Dr. E's background is in counseling. In fact, he teaches counseling classes at Colorado Christian University. His students need 2,000 hours of counseling experience, which is often difficult to come by. Meanwhile, his church has plenty of empty space. It was easy to see what needed to be done.

"We had a win-win-win situation," he says.

The TSC Counseling Center opened about three months ago at the church, offering secular and faith-based counseling services to anyone who needs it for a suggested donation of just $20 per hour — far less than conventional centers.

"Money can't buy you happiness," Dr. E says. "But it can pay for your therapy. And that's a problem when you're an under-resourced family."

Just in time for September's National Suicide Prevention Month, a survey was released by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Among its findings: "Nearly 90 percent of Americans value mental health and physical health equally, yet about one-third find mental health care inaccessible, and more than four in 10 see cost as a barrier to treatment for most people."

(The Mental Health and Suicide Survey was conducted online in the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of ADAA, AFSP and NAASP between Aug. 10 and 12 among 2,020 adults ages 18-plus. Because it was voluntary, no sampling error estimate was available.)

Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention executive director Janet Karnes says the Springs is in dire need of more counseling services in general, and more affordable options in particular. Emergency mental health care centers exist to meet acute needs, but it can be a struggle to find a counselor for ongoing needs, she says, particularly if the first appointment is needed right away. Even insured people can struggle to afford copays or meet deductibles, especially since counseling is usually needed for an extended period of time.

Karnes called the Sanctuary's new counseling center, "the best news I've heard all week."

Staffed by graduate counseling students and overseen by a Licensed Professional Counselor, the TSC Counseling Center is open Monday through Thursday. So far, the center has been operating about 15 hours a week, but Dr. E hopes it can run 40 hours per week once more people find out it's open. (Appointments can be made by emailing office@thesanctuarywestside.org or by calling 418-2506.) The center "honors all backgrounds, family types and beliefs" and is LGBT-friendly.

West's principal, Shalah Sims, says she can't comment specifically on the counseling service, but she is thankful for all the church has done for the school.

"Our school has had a very successful partnership with the Sanctuary Church," she says.

Dr. E doesn't really look like a pastor, or a professor for that matter.

On a Thursday visit to the church, he's dressed in jeans, sneakers and an Adidas shirt. There's no hair on his head and a small, pointed beard on his chin. He'd fit in easily at a tattoo parlor. That may be part of what attracts people to Sanctuary Church — there's very little pretension. Dr. E often calls the church "the island of misfit toys."

It's quite a change from the more traditional Bethany Baptist, once one of the city's largest churches, which had withered to around 20 members by the time it closed, the youngest of whom was in her 70s. The old site includes several buildings, including a carriage house now occupied by a church intern and his wife; a gym that once again bustles with afternoon basketball players from the neighborhood (West students also use it freely); a large sanctuary; and three stories of old offices and classrooms.

Sanctuary started out as a recovery group, and now there are several recovery groups and a 12-step program there, along with the secular group, Springs Recovery Connection. The counseling center is a warm space, freshly painted and newly furnished (thanks to a donation from a local counseling center). It has two private rooms for marriage counseling, a room with toys for play therapy with kids, a larger space for group therapy, and a lobby.

Dr. E is hopeful that the counseling center will be a resource for West students — perhaps it could even prevent another tragedy — but he says it's open to anyone who needs a little help. There's no shame, he says, in reaching out. Everybody needs a helping hand sometimes.

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