The biggest snowboarding contest in Montana is also the most socially significant as riders converge on Big Mountain every year to honor their fallen friends, competing in the spirit of raising awareness for suicide prevention.
The annual Nate Chute Classic, held this year on March 18-19, is a banked slalom and boardercross event named after Nate Chute, a well-known Whitefish local who took his own life after graduating from high school in 1999. His sudden, tragic death rocked the community and served as a gut-wrenching reminder of an epidemic plaguing Montana, a state that consistently ranks in the top five nationwide for suicide rates.
After their son’s death, father Terry Chute and mother Jane Kollmeyer devoted themselves to trying to prevent other families from experiencing the same anguish. With the help of Nate’s friends, many of whom have competed in the event every year while raising thousands of dollars, the family established the Nate Chute Foundation, a nonprofit with the goal of raising funds for suicide awareness and prevention services aimed at high school and middle school students.
Today, the Nate Chute Foundation is entering its 18th year, and board members are striving to elevate the cause and expand the foundation’s platform to raise awareness about suicide prevention while dedicating resources to reducing suicide among young people in western Montana.
The Nate Chute Foundation offers a suite of programs aimed at suicide prevention education and training, mental health counseling, and efforts to reduce substance abuse and improve self-esteem.
Kacy Howard, executive director at the Nate Chute Foundation, and board member Kate Berry both attended high school with Chute. They recall the shock of his suicide to the community, as well as to them personally.
“This cause is so close to us,” said Berry, who recently came across her journal entry from the day Chute died. Berry said the rawness of her emotion at the time and the pain of the loss ultimately gave her the courage to seek help when struggling with her own depression that culminated in a suicide attempt.
“Nate’s death shook me in a lot of ways, but ultimately being able to see the reality of a completed suicide was what made me more receptive to help when it came my way,” she said. “Montana can be a difficult place to show emotional vulnerability, and it is important to provide communities with the skills not only to identify someone facing these struggles, but also provide us with those skills for ourselves.”
Chute’s death also had a unifying effect on the community, and the following spring the Nate Chute Classic was born as an event to reconcile the teen’s passion for snowboarding and the despair that friends and family felt in wondering if they could have done more to help.
“That distress that rocked us to the core quickly motivated us to rise to action, thanks especially to a few specific individuals,” Howard said. “A lot of us became really aware that we had to talk about this and be honest with the fact that we were feeling extremely vulnerable. That call to action was really strong.”
Among other programs, the Nate Chute Foundation supports the Student Assistance Program, a crisis intervention program that provides trained guidance counselors who can offer help and resources to students who need support. It also offers suicide prevention counseling through licensed mental health therapists at no cost.
The Foundation offers an additional program geared toward awareness and prevention training, which can be tailored to the needs of specific groups, like law enforcement, first responders, medical professionals, or the general public.
Last year, the Nate Chute Foundation raised $13,000 through a CrowdRise fundraiser, which is continuing in 2017 as organizers set their sights on raising a similar amount.
Berry and Howard said the event — the longest continually running banked slalom in the Lower 48 — would not be successful without the support of sponsors like Stumptown Snowboards and, in particular, Whitefish Mountain Resort, which hosts the event every year.
“Whitefish Mountain Resort runs this contest as one of their flagship events, and it gives us enormous exposure. This is something that we started as kids to remember our friend and raise awareness about suicide prevention, and now it’s been around for 18 years, which amazes me,” Howard said. “That sometimes gets lost amongst the community of snowboarders, but this is a platform for this community to come together for something that is much bigger.”
A slate of fundraising events will take place in the days leading up to the races, and event details are available at http://skiwhitefish.com/event/18th-annual-nate-chute/.
For more information about the NC Foundation, visit www.natechutefoundation.org.