When Reggie Dabbs learned that he was adopted and that his biological mother was a impoverished teen who prostituted herself to earn money to feed her children, he felt lost and ashamed, unworthy of being loved—until a preacher told him that he was loved, by Jesus. Telling his own story of finding hope, Dabbs has become a popular public speaker, especially among high school students, who relate to Dabbs so well that they have divulged their own stories of hopelessness and hurt to him through letters and on social media. In Just Keep Breathing: A Shocking Exposé of Letters You Never Imagined a Generation Would Write (Thomas Nelson, Jan. 2016), Dabbs, together with former high school educator and youth advocate John Driver, shares and comments on these stories in the hope that those who work with young people in crisis will be better prepared on how they can help. PW caught up with them both to talk about the book.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 15 to 24, according to HealthyChildren.org, and Just Keep Breathing exposes the harsh realities many young adults face. What led you to share these stories?
Reggie Dabbs: In twenty-eight years of speaking in public schools, I’ve watched kids hurt in so many ways. I’ve seen their pain revealed through different stories, but, essentially, they share the same pain. I wanted to show educators what students in their classrooms are going through. I wanted to let kids know that they’re not alone in their pain. I wanted to let parents see ways they can reach out and help their own precious children.
John Driver: I felt a deep desire to be active in actually doing something to positively affect this generation. The number of people who write to Reggie is so staggering we felt we needed to respond with a creative, thoughtful, hopeful message. We set out with the mission to let their stories be heard, but also offer hope and help to those who share life with them everyday.
Sadly, many of the stories are from suicidal teens. Do you see a common thread among these kids?
RD: To me, the common thread is hopelessness. It’s easy to think of hope as something intangible and even cliché, but it’s far from either. The loss of hope is the most detrimental and indicative variable that can lead one to thoughts of ending it all, and it can almost always be traced back to a moment, perceived or actual, when a trusted relationship enters crisis. That’s why it’s especially important for parents, families, and educators to understand the power they have, even when kids seem to reject their efforts, to foster healthy, shame-free, communicative relationships during these formative years.
JD: I agree. If you start thinking there’s no hope, then why care? Or worse, why even live? This line of reasoning is more common than most people think. As hard as some of these letters are to read, we knew we had to show this hopelessness so people could see the need and feel personally empowered to help.
Reggie, you share a lot about your own life, the hurt and hopelessness you felt, with the kids who write to you. How do you get these teens to open up to you?
Hurting people can help hurting people. I think the kids (and adults) I speak to identify with my hurt. Their stories are different, but the pain is the same. Because they identify with something I’ve gone through, they open themselves up to me about what they’re going through.
What can adults do to best help a teen in trouble?
RD: I think the key is being someone’s hero… Waking up every day and deciding that today I’m going to listen to someone. Today, I’m going to help someone. Today, I’m going to be a friend to someone. As adults, we get so wrapped up in the busyness of who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’re going that we sometimes don’t realize that if we would just take the time to listen, we could make someone’s day better. We could even save lives. We’ve got to slow down and love.
JD: Reggie’s right—we’re too busy to care. Can my one little drop of care, hope, or helpfulness affect an ocean of crisis? Yes!