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After York teen's suicide, pay-it-forward campaign helps with healing

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Cessna Brestel could have been considered an all-American girl. The 15-year-old York native with the big smile and dark blonde hair was an honors student. She played sports. She danced in a competitive troupe. And she was active in drama.

She also had countless friends and was quick to show kindness toward everyone — sometimes complete strangers — who crossed her path.

Misty Brouillette and Cessna Brestel

Misty Brouillette (left) and her late daughter Cessna Brestel. Soaring for C, the foundation set up in Cessna's honor, gives Brouillette purpose, she says.

"She was perfect," said her mother, Misty Brouillette. 

And in the span of less than a year, her life unraveled. And eventually ended when Cessna took her own life. 

"She gave up on life," her mother said.

The stomach ailment that caused her to rapidly lose 45 pounds and spend weeks in the care of the Mayo Clinic bares plenty of responsibility.

So does a pandemic that caused isolation and stripped her of all extracurricular activities and the social interactions -- from boyfriends to besties -- every young teenager needs, while also delaying the medical treatment that could have detected her ailment sooner.

And it's fair to mention a mental health epidemic among teens that has reached a crisis point and is only starting to gain the needed attention.

As her mother grieves, Soaring for C, the foundation set up in Cessna's honor, she admits, is the one thing that gives her purpose.

"Having Soaring for C keeps her memory alive, and that keeps me going," Brouillette said.

What was started by the girl's classmates as a social media plea for random acts of kindness and pay-it-forward gestures as a way of remembering Cessna has grown into so much more.

There are scholarships and programs in York's schools to prevent teenage suicide. It's Brouillette's hope that it might keep another parent from losing a child, while ensuring Cessna's legacy.

On the last Saturday of Suicide Prevention Month, the Soaring for C foundation will be the beneficiary of Zephyr Fest, a day of music at the York County Fairgrounds. 

"It’s a sad story, but the pay-it-forward campaign in her memory has been incredible," said Mark Sulzle, one of the organizers of Zephyr Fest. "Cessna’s story is so compelling, but the family and friends took that tragedy and have found something positive in it.

"We wanted to be a part of that."

To truly understand a community rallying around this cause, it helps to look back on the last year of Cessna Brestel's life.

It unraveled quickly

She was a 14-year-old freshman at York High School in the fall of 2020, competing for the cross country team, while also participating on the school's one-act drama team.

After Zoom classes the previous spring, school was back to in-person learning and her transition from middle school to high school was going seamlessly.

For months, she had began experiencing what they thought was acid reflux. Over-the-counter medication didn't help and when it worsened, they went to the family doctor.

The prescribed medication didn't work, either. The doctor thought it might be an ulcer and arranged an appointment with a gastrointestinal specialist in Omaha. However, with COVID-19 cases on the rise again, getting test results was next to impossible.

"All of the tests that should have taken a month ended up taking five to six months," her mother said. "By the time we got to the last physical test they could offer her, she had lost 45 pounds."

She was malnourished and unable to hold down food when they got an appointment with a specialist at the Mayo Clinic just after Thanksgiving.

After nearly a week of testing, she was diagnosed with Rumination syndrome. She was so emaciated, she was admitted to a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, for two weeks.

They got home to York just before Christmas. She had been forced to miss the end of cross country season and the one-act state tournament, where York won the championship. In addition, she was prohibited from taking part in any physical activities.

But she plowed ahead and between Christmas and the start of the new year  gained 10 pounds. A short time later, Cessna's relationship with her boyfriend ended, which her mother said devastated her.

The Rumination syndrome came back in full force. The thought of returning to a hospital bed, and the fear that she might need a feeding tube, threw her into a state of despair.

"I had talked to her about her mental health and how it was hard for me to watch because I couldn’t understand what she was going through," Brouillette said. "She was like, 'I’ll be OK. This is something I have to deal with. It will be OK.'

"I knew this was a lot to handle."

On Feb. 1, 2021, Misty went to wake up Cessna and found her dead in her bed. A day later, she found the note in one of her drawers.

"Even in her note, she told (her father Patrick Brestel and I) we didn’t deserve this," Brouillette said. "It wasn’t that she didn’t care, because she did care about us. But she was just tired."

Random acts

Small towns seem to rally following a tragedy and York was no different. The community wrapped its collective arms around Cessna's parents and everyone who mourned her loss.

And as they coped with losing Cessna, one of her friends started an online campaign for kindness in her friend's memory.

random acts card.jpg

More than 17,000 random acts of kindness cards have been printed and distributed as part of an effort by the family and friends of Cessna Brestel, who took her own life in 2021.

It was popular from the start, but when Misty had 300 pay-it-forward cards made and handed them out to anyone interested, the campaign reached a new level.

The requests for the business card-sized notes took off. Since May 2021, Brouillette has made 17,000 cards. They are present in every U.S. state as well as several European countries and as far away as Japan.

"Everybody wanted one," she said.

The cards implore the holder to do an act of kindness for someone while passing the card on to that person -- paying it forward. In turn, the person who receives the card is supposed to follow suit.

Cessna "inspired a lot of good and that’s exactly what this is all about," her mother said. "Our purpose in life is to help others and do for others.

"I want that to be part of her legacy, for others to think about other people and just be kind."

Mark Sulzle


Rockin' for a reason

Sulzle, the bassist for a band called Iron Zephyr, wanted to use his music to help the York community.

He launched Zephyr Fest a year ago and with a single day of music, the event raised more than $10,000 for the town's Peyton Parker Lane Playground.

The hope is to top that on Saturday when Saul -- a band with two albums and a top-20 Billboard single to its credit, and a bassist named William McIlravy, who is a York native -- headlines the lineup.

A handful of other bands have signed on to play the festival -- on their own dime, Sulzle said.

"They're playing for some gas money," he said. "They want to be here."

Zephyr Fest

For McIlravy, playing Zephyr Fest was a no-brainer.

"We're very exited to be a part of this," McIlravy said. "I grew up in York and was there until I was 18. I want to give back to the community. 

Tragedy is no stranger to this band. In fact, Saul's biggest hit, "Brother," which climbed to No. 20 on the Billboard list in early 2020, was written by band members and brothers Blake and Zach Bedsaul to honor their late sibling.

There's an understanding, Brouillette said, that means everything.

"They are supporting our cause," she said. "They want to help us take care of others in this community."

From the classroom: A curtain call for Lincoln Southwest's Theater Department

Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or

On Twitter @psangimino


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