'Henry's Helpers' bringing memory of lost Gilbert High School student, friend to Ames farmers market

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Update: This story was updated to reflect that Susan Owen is working with an organization that serves Minneapolis schools and others with mental health services that use mindfulness, movement and social-emotional learning, but she does not work directly with Minneapolis schools.  

The work to honor a Gilbert student who died last year and raise awareness about mental health will have a new chapter this weekend as people from his life memorialize his love of reading at a farmers market in Ames.

Henry Owen, 17, a junior at Gilbert High School, died by suicide in September. 

The HAMO Foundation (Henry Alan Munson Owen) was started to honor Owen and raise awareness of mental illness and suicide in teenagers. 

The nonprofit foundation supports a scholarship for Gilbert students, not based on grades, but "just that they had a life plan and they were kind," said Susan Owen, Henry's mom and manager of The Pumpkin Patch store in downtown Ames. 

The "Henry's Helpers" group was also born out of the foundation, and it will honor him starting this weekend by having read-alouds from 10-11 a.m. Saturdays outside The Pumpkin Patch during the Ames Main Street Farmers' Market.

Lauren Fischer, Henry Owen, Julia Clouse and Aubrey Mizerak pose in front of Kiley Sanduka during a Battle of the Books.

Kiley Sanduka, who knew Owen since he was in the fourth grade, coordinates Henry's Helpers. With the help of three of his friends — Julia Clouse, Lauren Fischer and Aubrey Mizerak — who also competed with him on the first Battle of the Books team Sanduka sponsored, the group created a space upstairs in The Pumpkin Patch where they will someday have storytimes.

Honoring Henry Owen last year:'He impacted a lot of people in Iowa': Gilbert community honors Henry Owen with a message of hope

Battle of the Books is an Ames Public Library program that sees teams of fifth- and sixth-grade students read a designated list of books and compete at the library based on facts from the books.

Susan Owen said “Henry was an avid reader from the time he was little," be it classics, poetry or Harry Potter. 

A younger Henry Owen's love of reading is in action.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is for now keeping the space upstairs in The Pumpkin Patch from being used, a workaround will be on display this weekend — benches crafted by Gilbert students that will be used for the read-aloud outside the store.

Dan Jones, who teaches building trades at Gilbert, said a few students in a carpentry class were getting two benches ready for the weekend, with maybe another two on the way in the future.

Jones said the benches are made of quality used lumber and are engraved with "Henry's Helper" by way of etching, burning, sanding and a polyurethane coating. 

Jones knew Henry, too, and said he was someone who was intelligent, conscious of others, cared about justice and fair play, and everybody liked his magnetic personality. 

“He could make a grumpy old man laugh,” Jones said. 

More:Ames Main Street Farmers' Market starts Saturday

"All his friends I had in class. I think in talking with those other kids, it was ‘take this (Owen’s death) and make something positive out of it.’ ” 

Sanduka said the read-alouds mean that "Henry’s love for reading will continue to inspire others to enjoy reading, too."

She said some of Owen's favorite picture books and Iowa Goldfinch Award books will be read Saturday.

"Really, the hope is that we just get to share Henry’s contagious, happy personality with everyone that we can," Mizerak said. "It’s a really neat way, because reading was something I connected with Henry over."

Susan Owen also wants to start over the summer a reading club for high school students.

"I’m really happy with what the kids have done to help heal," she said.

She and Sanduka are thinking that after the pandemic, Henry's Helpers' storytimes might expand into locations including nursing homes.

Scholarships and reading are not the only ways Henry Owen's life will leave a legacy, however.

His mom said she would be flying to California this weekend to see how a Boys & Girls Club program there is addressing vaping and smoking through a grant, with the goal of getting a similar educational program in schools at home.

She's also working with a St. Paul, Minnesota-based organization to look at how it uses mindfulness in schools in the Minneapolis area and elsewhere, with the hope of integrating that throughout school days as well — something she said she's meeting with the superintendents of Ames and Gilbert about.

“It’s helping," she said of what all the work means. "I know it’s helping."

How to get help

There are several state and national resources for those contemplating suicide, as well as resources for family or friends who may be concerned about a loved one. 

  • Your Life Iowa — call 855-581-8111 or text 855-895-8398 for free 24/7, confidential support. Other resources are available online at yourlifeiowa.org. There is also a live chat function on the website.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — call 800-273-TALK (8255), also available in Spanish at 888-628-9454, for free 24/7, confidential support. Other resources are available online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
  • Foundation 2 Crisis Center — call 800-332-4224 from anywhere in Iowa for free, 24/7 confidential support. Other resources are available online at foundation2.org/services/crisis-center/

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.