Boy's suicide inspires grandma's 'Don't Give Up' campaign

INSPIRED: Dana Fullerton unloads signs from her car for the "Don't Give Up" movement, giving them to Ashlee Phillips, director of Camp Wesley in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Ceili Doyle/Columbus Dispatch/Tribune News Service

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio — When Dana Fullerton pulls up to the McDonald’s drive-through, a collection of metal stakes and white, plastic signs rattle in the back of her red Ford Escape.

She hands the cashier her card and two black-and-white wristbands emblazoned with the words “You Matter” and “Don’t Give Up.”

“One’s to wear and one’s to share,” she says.

It’s her catchphrase.

Fullerton smiles as the person in the window thanks her; people often are surprised to be the recipient of such an unexpected dose of kindness.

The trunk of Fullerton’s car is filled with boxes of yard signs with sharp, black lettering conveying similar messages: “You Matter,” “Don’t Give Up,” “You Are Worthy of Love” and “Your Mistakes Don’t Define You.”

There also are cards and T-shirts scattered in the back of Fullerton’s car, which doubles as the hub of her operation to spread hope and love in Logan County, northwest of Columbus.

Shell-shocked

In March, the Rushsylvania woman lost her 12-year-old grandson, Drystyn Turner, to suicide. Fullerton was struggling to make sense of the loss and deal with her grief when she came across a video about the Don’t Give Up Movement during a church meeting.

“I was shell-shocked,” said Fullerton, 56. “I kept looking at the other girls in our ministry and saying, ‘I could do that.’”

Amy Wolff, who started the global suicide prevention movement two years ago by placing 20 yard signs with messages of hope around her small town in Oregon, inspired Fullerton to follow the cause with a local group.

So Fullerton started posting on Facebook pages to Rushsylvania and nearby Belle Center and Bellefontaine: “Would anybody be interested in one of these signs?”

People were.

They commented on her posts and shared their own stories of depression, grief and lost loved ones. Fullerton contacted every one of them.

She ordered a batch of signs and wristbands from Wolff’s website and met with a group of volunteers in Bellefontaine to gather donations.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Fullerton recalled saying to everyone. “I’m not qualified, I don’t have a degree, but I want to help.”

No answer

Drystyn loved animals. He liked to draw and was a member of the school choir.

“He was a sweet, bubbly kid,” Fullerton said.

Getting the call about his death from her son, Andy, rocked Fullerton.

“My biggest regret,” she said, pausing to collect herself, “was not being close enough.”

For most of Drystyn’s life, she has been a distant grandma, Fullerton explained. Andy and his wife, Ginger, lived in Columbus with Drystyn and their older son, Aaron, for years, and Fullerton did not see them much until they moved to nearby Zanesfield in 2017.

She doesn’t know why Drystyn killed himself or how he felt in the days and weeks leading up to his death.

But Fullerton cherishes her memories of picking up Drystyn after school. She drove him home from art club just a week before he died.

In the car that day, a friend called Drystyn, and he told the caller he was busy.

“He said, ‘Can I let you go? I’m with my grandma, and I really want to spend time with her,’” Fullerton remembered, smiling through her tears.

After his death, she didn’t want to just huddle up on the couch with her grief.

“Life’s rough, but it’s not all about you,” Fullerton said. “Everybody suffers, and that’s why you need to be good to each other.”

Message of hope

The Don’t Give Up signs reinforce the message of acceptance that Camp Wesley in Bellefontaine shares with its new campers every week, said Director Ashlee Phillips.

Camp Wesley takes in a lot of inner-city kids from Cincinnati and Dayton, and many of those campers have stories fraught with pain and broken families, Phillips said. It’s a part of a conference of camps under the umbrella of the United Methodist Church that provide a network of support for campers.

“A lot of campers come to us in ICU states of life,” Phillips said. “We try to slow it down and turn ICU into ‘I see you.’”

Phillips said she believes that Fullerton’s signs are another way she and the counselors are able to show that support.

On Fridays, counselors and staff hold up the signs as campers leave the grounds, hoping the kids will take the messages of encouragement home.

“We don’t have enough people who are willing to be listeners,” Phillips said. “It has to be a community effort, which is what Dana’s started.

Helping her grow

Back on the road, Fullerton waved off the idea that she shouldn’t be driving the car this much.

One of her rear wheel bearings is shot, her husband, Bryan, warned her. It was supposed to go to the shop later that week.

Fullerton is something of a celebrity in Bellefontaine, dropping off signs throughout the town, hosting rallies and greeting everyone with a smile and a hug.

She often refers to herself as a squirrel, constantly bouncing from one idea to the next.

Fullerton also is a self-described old-school woman. She grew up on a farm in nearby Hardin County in the 1960s and ‘70s, and back then, people didn’t talk much about their feelings.

No one dared bring up instances of sexual assault, racism or being part of the LGBTQ community, she said. And they rarely acknowledged thoughts of suicide.

“Organizing the signs has given me so much more exposure to gay people, to the elderly and is helping me grow,” she explained.

She pointed to a house where she dropped off a sign for the two women who live there, and another where an elderly man shared his battle with depression.

Folks in the small Logan County community of West Liberty recently held a Pride parade and asked Fullerton to bring signs.

She felt uneasy, so another volunteer ended up going in her place. But Fullerton said she regrets not attending.

“I’m ashamed to say my first thought was, ‘What will my other Christian friends think?’” she said. “I need to get over it. It doesn’t matter. We’re meant to love everyone.”

Fullerton places her trust in her grandson’s memory and her faith. Taking on this movement has challenged her to question the traditional ways she was taught to think, and ultimately to become more accepting while helping others.

“I can’t save Drystyn,” Fullerton said, “but if one person sees a sign, changes their mind or hesitates, it would be worth every dime.”

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