Students of the Early College at Guilford host blood drive in honor of former student

Northwest Guilford High School senior Taylor Bolejack, left, poses for a photo with Early College student Joe Coggin as he donates blood at the blood drive held in the Community Center on Friday, Nov. 10, 2017.//Photo by Abigail Bekele/The Guilfordian

Students at the Early College at Guilford College helped raise awareness about suicide prevention and mental health issues at a blood drive on campus. The drive was held in honor of a friend who died over the summer.

“She would always hint about her going to college with us and doing all those things that 20-year-olds do as best friends,” said Thida Lee, an Early College at Guilford student. “So when we found out, it was just like a punch in the gut because it was so unexpected.”

Alyssa Gardella, a former Early College at Guilford student and a close friend of Lee, committed suicide on July 13.

Lee heard about the death the next day when Julia Martins de Sa, another close friend of Gardella’s, called to tell her the news.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” Lee said. “So I kept saying ‘What? What? What? Can you say that again?’ She said it again, and I didn’t cry or anything. I just kind of stood there and I was like, ‘holy s—.’”

Lee and Martins de Sa had planned to host a blood drive during the 2016 to 2017 academic year. After Gardella’s death, they decided to hold the blood drive in her honor and to raise awareness for mental health issues.

They worked with Kristen Poteat, a graduate assistant in Guilford College’s Office of Student Leadership and Engagement, to partner with the college on a blood drive that took place Friday.

“They reached out to me and immediately, I was excited to collaborate because, of course, after hearing the story and hearing the cause about their intent of wanting a blood drive, it just made complete sense to have the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement partner with the Early College to bring to light an issue that not only affects high school students, but a lot of college students,” said Poteat.

To raise awareness on mental health issues, Early College student volunteers gave each donor a small ribbon with teal and purple stripes, a symbol for suicide prevention. They also made available reading material, including information on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).

At the blood drive, many Early College students, like senior Sydney Pierce, were first-time donors who donated to honor Gardella and support the mental health awareness initiative.

“When I heard that she died, it was really upsetting to me,” Pierce said. “I’m really glad that this drive is raising awareness for suicide prevention because it is such a big problem.”

More teens and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, according to the Jason Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the awareness and prevention of youth suicide. It is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24, the group said, citing 2015 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Friday’s Guilford College blood drive had only been prepared to collect blood from about 34 donors, but due to turnout, they had to adjust for 51 people who donated.

“It’s actually pretty overwhelming,” said Lee. “I didn’t realize so many people were going to sign up, especially the underclassmen. They never met (Gardella), obviously, because she left before they could. So I was just surprised that ECG could do that and that’s pretty amazing.”

Ten Early College students volunteered to help during the blood drive, including junior Sophia Hazlett.

“I think it’s very important that we’re all participating in this event,” she said. “I did not personally know Alyssa, but either way for me, for somebody to take their life (rather than) live it, thinking that’s an easier route, it’s very hurtful and hard that that has to be that way.”

Early College senior Joseph Chang said it was like helping two causes.

“I get to donate blood for people who need blood. And with the mental awareness, people will learn about these issues and help others, if they’re in need,” he said. “We were all there for a purpose.”