St. Charles Unit District 303 teachers met for a staff pep rally Friday that tugged at the heart as much as invigorated them for the new school year. Key on the mind of all district staff is going another full year without a student suicide.

Months of community discussion about the six student suicides in seven years in District 303 resulted in a lot more eyes carefully trained on student emotions last year. District staff identified 159 students from elementary school through high school last year who were either thinking about suicide or displayed tendencies associated with suicidal thoughts.

"The fact that you've been asking the question, 'Are you doing OK?', is really important," Superintendent Don Schlomann said to an audience of the district's teachers.

It's one thing to hear that message from a school administrator. It's another to hear it from a mother who still found tears in her eyes while reliving the consequences of unrecognized teen depression.

Bonnie Waltmire left her 16-year-old daughter Hilary home alone to run an errand on Oct. 23, 2007. Hilary had just come home from St. Charles East High School and had helped her mom carry in the groceries before Waltmire left. When she came home, Hilary had hanged herself in her closet. Waltmire never even knew her daughter was unhappy.

"Hilary was so kind, sensitive and naturally funny in a really goofy way," Waltmire told the teachers. "She was all girl. She loved makeup and her hair and trips to the mall. Hilary was a great friend, and she chose great friends. She made good choices all the time. To us, she appeared to be moving through the teenage years very well."

After her death, Waltmire learned Hilary received a call from her first boyfriend's phone from another girl. The call informed her that her boyfriend was dumping her.

"I can only imagine Hilary's feeling of humiliation," Waltmire sobbed. "I can only imagine because I never got to sit down and hold her while she told me about it."

Waltmire believes that was only the final trigger. She later discovered a hidden diary on Hilary's computer that showed emotional despair from prior hurtful events Waltmire had thought her daughter had resolved.

"She thought she was ugly and unlovable and that the world would be better off without her," Waltmire said. "Our daughter faced undiagnosed and untreated depression all alone. We would have done anything to help her if we had only known."

Waltmire began an organization called "Hilary's Hope" to ensure other parents get that chance to help their children. The organization promotes emotional wellness in children and teens and provides a parent-to-parent support group for parents with children who have emotional struggles.

Waltmire praised the district for making suicide prevention an everyday priority in the schools. She believes the stigma of depression and suicidal thoughts is lessened in the district these days. Evidence of that occurred when nearly half the students at one high school forum stood in recognition of feeling depressed or knowing a friend with depression.

"I want to remind you of the power of your presence in each child's life," Waltmire told the teachers. "I want you to know what really makes the most difference. It's the compassion of a school nurse, the smile from a secretary, a greeting in the hallway. It's the question, 'How can I help you?', and the time spent listening rather than talking."