At the Seven Mountains Boy Scout Camp on a recent Saturday, the sounds on nature were drowned out by the hum of electric sanders.
Under a pavilion, members of Boy Scout Troop 32, along with parents, family members and troop leaders, bustled back and forward with long wooden planks, power tools and packs of sandpaper.
It will soon make up the siding for the new David O’Connell Health Education Building, a tribute to two local teens who left a lasting impact on those around them.
David O’Connell and his best friend Brandon Koppenhaver Jr. were members of Boy Scout Troop 32 and students at State College Area High School. David died by suicide in January of last year and his best friend Brandon, known as Junior by his family, took his own life a year and a day later. They were both 16 years old.
“Just really when we were starting to cope with it and deal with it is when Junior left us and really set us all back,” Don O’Connell, David’s father, said. “But the Koppenhavers and us feel like we’ve lost two sons, each a year apart.”
Nicholle Koppenhaver, Brandon’s mother, said it’s only right that the boys be memorialized together as they were always together in life.
Construction on the building started Feb. 18, and it will serve as a medical center for the camp as well as a place where scouts can earn medical merit badges.
“He’ll be able to help people for years to come,” O’Connell said, fighting back tears.
Health lodge will fill a ‘desperate need’
The project is estimated at $160,000, and the vast majority of supplies, labor and funds were donated by more than 30 local businesses, said Jeff Pickett, Scout Executive of Juniata Valley Council.
“We knew that David before he passed was also active in firefighting and was working on becoming an EMT and we really had a desperate need for a health lodge here in camp,” Pickett said.
The deadline for completion is May 31, as counselors arrive to set up the camp the first week of June. Pickett said the project is on schedule and he’s confident that it will be finished in time.
Those who knew David and Brandon best say they would be humbled by the act of building a new health lodge in their honor.
“They would be extremely humbled, extremely appreciative and wishing it was being done for someone else,” O’Connell said. “I really think they’d be like, ‘no, we don’t deserve this, go do something for someone else.’”
Both David and Brandon loved camp, spending weeks with their friends in the troop and helping younger scouts. David was a true “people pleaser” and could make anyone smile, according to his friends and fellow Boy Scouts Will English and Forrest Keene.
Brandon was a group leader for younger scouts and often wrestled around with them at camp and during campouts. The oldest of three brothers, he was always good with the younger scouts, Keene said.
“He would always call us little demons and we would call him the demon wrangler,” said JJ O’Hara, one of the scouts in Brandon’s group.
Brandon was in the culinary track at State College Area High School and loved to cook, although he never remembered a recipe.
“He could even make Spam taste good,” English said.
Keeping the conversation going
After David’s death, Brandon struggled to talk about what he was feeling or reach out for help, his mother said.
“He cared and I think that’s one reason why he was so hard on himself, because of David, because he cared so much about David,” Koppenhaver said. “He just didn’t know how to deal with that pain. He was always a good listener, and he tried helping people and he just didn’t know how to help himself.”
After David’s death, the O’Connell family started the David O’Connell Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to junior firefighters and junior first responders in central Pennsylvania. David was a junior firefighter for Port Matilda Fire Company and wanted to become a first responder.
“Our goal since David committed suicide has been suicide education and mental health awareness in the community,” O’Connell said. “This building is a way to keep this conversation going so we can end the stigma.”
The Jana Marie Foundation is also working with the troop to help facilitate conversations surrounding mental health. Marisa Vicere started the foundation in 2011 after her 30-year-old sister took her own life, and she now helps establish programs that bring awareness to mental health and youth suicide.
“Pennsylvania Youth Survey shows that one in six … (Pennsylvania) students in grade six through 12 have seriously considered suicide, one in eight have a plan for suicide and one in ten have attempted suicide,” Vicere said.
Mental health awareness and education for students is incredibly important, especially in the midst of a pandemic, Vicere said.
“The earlier that we start with talking about our mental health, the easier it’s going to be for when they grow up, but that still doesn’t make it easy,” Vicere said.
The deaths of David and Brandon have brought new awareness of mental health issues for the troop and those who knew them.
“Before David and Brandon, it was like ‘that would never happen to me,’” English said. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through.”
Troop 32 had counseling sessions on Zoom after David’s passing but took a different approach after Brandon’s death, Scoutmaster Joel Ranck said.
“Instead of sitting around and doing a kind of ‘Kumbaya’ counseling session, we did active learning where scouts were asked to do certain tasks, which got them to talk to each other and think and share,” Ranck said.
The camp will have an emphasis on mental health in the future and promote programs addressing mental health issues.
“Right now we’re calling it mental health first aid, just like scouts earn first aid merit badges we need to raise awareness of mental health issues and learn how to recognize and address those issues,” Pickett said.
Looking for behavioral changes and being willing to have tough conversations about mental health is vital to providing support, Vicere said.
“They didn’t realize how many people loved them,” English said.
Suicide prevention resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Center for Community Resources: 800-643-5432, or visit 2100 E. College Ave.
CrisisText line: text “Home” to 741-741