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Ethan’s Purpose: ‘There is no shame,’ say parents, whose nonprofit helps others after son’s suicide

By Maridith Yahl
Special to KyForward

“There is no shame in this. This was an opportunity to say, there is a problem out there and why are we not talking about it,” says Debbie Zegarra, co-founder of Northern Kentucky-based Ethan’s Purpose.

Debbie’s son Ethan committed suicide in September 2018. Since then she has become an advocate for awareness, change, and counseling for kids.

Debbie Zegarra

Ethan was adopted at birth, but being a traumatic event Ethan had trust issues. Growing up though, he was such a happy kid, the easy kid, and in fact very flexible. He didn’t struggle through elementary school. Middle school was more difficult because he just wasn’t interested. His depression came out around that time, but that was along with puberty.

He had great friends but his behavior changed.

“We didn’t see signs of depression and anxiety. Eventually, a lot of his behaviors when engaging in risky behaviors were typical teenage stuff. Like their idea was sneaking out on a Friday night, walking up to the UDF, and buying a Monster. Did we like it? No, but was it a big deal? Not really,” Debbie says, almost with a chuckle.

In November of 2017 at the vulnerable age of 15, Ethan told his father he wanted to kill himself. He spent a week in a mental health facility where they also had family counseling.

Richard and Debbie were shocked to learn he had already tried to kill himself multiple times. Thinking back on it, Debbie remembered little things, like the time the bleach was out of place. It was normally in the laundry room but was in the garage. They learned he had researched drinking bleach.


“That was shocking to me. Because I felt like as a parent he had a home, he had clothes, he had food, we helped him with homework, we took him on vacations, we paid attention, we had conversations. Ethan and I would talk almost every night while I was making dinner. He would sit at the counter and we talked about pot, we talked about sex, we talked about girls, we talked about his birth mom, I mean I felt like we did a lot of talking,” says Debbie in a way that only a mother could.

When making presentations about suicide awareness and Ethan’s Purpose, Debbie hears people say you need to talk to your children. She says a resounding, “Yes, yes you do. I did.”

But Debbie continues with this caution, “It took me a long time to say this, they’re only going to show you what they want you to see. So yeah, he talked to me, but he didn’t talk to me. There’s no way you’re going to know everything.”

Debbie checked Ethan’s social media but he had separate accounts he showed his parents and separate accounts he used with his friends.

Richard Zegarra

His parents did all the right things.

When Ethan shot himself, he lived for 15 days.

“I remember thinking, ‘God, if you’re going to take him just take him now, don’t drag it out.’ But, in hindsight we had 15 days to sit with him, and to talk him and to pray,” Debbie says in a cracked voice as she cries.

Out of Ethan’s death came life. Richard and Debbie donated five of his organs, and also helped 50 other people through tissue and bone donation, saving 55 people in all. That year Ethan was the 55th organ donor at UC Health, LifeCenter Organ Donor Network.

A few months after his death, Debbie remembered something a friend told her in the hospital when they knew he wasn’t going to make it. He said, “I don’t know how this is going to end, but I know you’re going to do something with this.”

Ethan and his dog, Iceman

Richard and Debbie took the monetary donations to the bank to open a non-profit. Debbie gave the zip-lock bag to the banker to count. Exactly $550. “I have a very strong faith,” Debbie says. She looked it up, five means great.

During a conversation two nights before his death, Ethan asked, “What’s my purpose in life.” Debbie told him, “Buddy you’re 16. Go to school and hang with your people, that’s your purpose.”

But Ethan really struggled to understand why he was put on earth, “Why would God put me here if my birth mom didn’t want me,” Ethan would ask.

The name, Ethan’s Purpose, was born from this.

“I feel like Ethan had all the advantages in life to help him, but we still couldn’t reach him,” says Debbie. “We thought the best way to reach the kids would be in the school system,” she says about the mission of Ethan’s Purpose.

Once again Ethan’s death provides life.

The Zegarra family. Mom and Dad with Ethan and Richard.

School counselors have so many responsibilities, they don’t get to spend the time they want or need with the kids. Ethan’s Purpose supplements what counselors are already doing. This school year they partnered with North Pointe Elementary, Thornwilde Elementary, and Connor High School funding a counselor to do small-group counseling.

Ethan’s Purpose is a 501c(3) non-profit, all of the money used to put counselors in the schools is made through fundraising and donations. They have several events each year including a 3-on-3 for E Basketball Tournament, ET’s Stampede 5K Walk/Run, and Crafting for a Cause. Ethan’s Purpose website or Facebook page are great places to find information about these events.

“I think the more we talk about it, the more we make it ok to say, ‘You know what, I’m not ok,’ and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Debbie with passion and determination.

Debbie says good things have come out of this but that every day is still hard. She talks to him and sees signs that he is there. “Talking about it helps,” Debbie says, “I feel like he’s with me all the time.”

Maridith Yahl writes for the Northern Kentucky Tribune

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