Skip to main content

Sugar House Journal

Local nonprofit organizes tree planting to honor those lost by suicide

Jul 15, 2021 11h25 ● By Lizzie Walie

The Roan Your Boat Foundation celebrated its inaugural event honoring Roan McClain and others who have lost their lives to suicide. (Photo courtesy Michelle Nelson and The Roan Your Boat Foundation)

By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]

On June 6, The Roan William McClain Foundation, also known as Roan Your Boat, hosted their inaugural event, a tree planting in South Salt Lake’s Fitts Park. The event served as an opportunity for the new nonprofit organization to stretch its legs and alert the public to its services. In addition, the event paid homage to the organization’s namesake, Roan McClain and others lost to suicide. 

McClain, who was a student at Salt Lake School of the Performing Arts and Highland High School, would have graduated this year. His story is tragically familiar. Across the country, thousands of teenagers and young adults take their lives each year. 

McClain was the type of person who looked at the world without limitations. He had a knack for extracting beauty in the unorthodox, something his mother, and Roan Your Boat’s founder, Michelle Nelson emphasized. “He was a photographer who found beauty in the world through a lens,” Nelson said. “His friends told me that he was always introducing them to new music and art. He was definitely a free thinker and experimenter.” McClain and his family were also avid travelers, experiencing the joys of encapsulating oneself in new spaces and cultures.

When it came to his peers, McClain was the type of student who transcended the traditional divisions of high school. “At the risk of stereotyping, Roan could make friends with any type of group, preppy, athletic, artistic, he could talk with anyone,” Nelson said. “Above all else, he could often find the hidden value in the seemingly mundane. He was an old soul who embraced the odd and fantastic, a true visionary.” 

Yet it was also his open and empathetic nature that Nelson believes caused him to ultimately feel and internalize the world’s often unrelenting difficulties. “The term empath is a bit overused these days, but Roan, he was very empathetic.”

At age 16, McClain took his life. As with any deep trauma, his passing catapulted Nelson into a state of grief and she found herself immersed in thought. As a licensed clinical social worker and clinical therapist, Nelson struggled to reconcile her potential blind spot in recognizing the signs of risk in McClain. 

As Nelson began to move through the depths of her grief, she started to ponder how she could channel her thoughts, despair, and healing into something greater. Thus, the idea of Roan Your Boat was born. Having received its 501(3)(c) nonprofit status in 2020, the organization is still in its infancy. However, its thoughtful and innovative approach is one that will certainly resonate with teenagers. 

“We actually decided to use the name Roan Your Boat because it was Roan’s social media handle,” Nelson said. “It’s a play on row your boat, and like many other children’s stories and songs, it actually has a lot of depth and meaning.” The concept of hidden depth and meaning resonates with a lot of teenagers suffering from issues regarding their identity and mental welfare. Too often, society is quick to dismiss the perils of adolescence. The issues that children and teenagers deal with are often labeled trivial. However, if McClain’s story is to teach us anything, it’s that suffering is real regardless of age. “He lost hope,” Nelson said. “He lost hope and that’s what suicide is, losing hope. He lost hope that things would get better.” 

Ultimately, Roan Your Boat teaches tenants of hope and perseverance in a way that doesn’t invalidate the real struggles teenagers and young adults encounter. Given that McClain himself was a creative, the organization also focuses on extracting and utilizing the therapeutic benefits of nature, connection and creativity. While targeted toward teenagers and young adults, Roan Your Boat is dedicated to providing support for those experiencing loss and those that are actively struggling. 

“We are still relatively new,” Nelson said, “but we are now working toward pairing with other organizations particularly to see what kinds of complementary services we can offer.” 

The core mission is to honor the real struggles of life and provide outlets of healing and expression to help cultivate resiliency and perseverance in young adults.

Roan Your Boat’s flagship event at Fitts Park marks the beginning of many events to come. While the event honored McClain and others, the space was open for any and all struggling with the pain and heaviness that accompanies loss by suicide. The tree planting event, which resulted in a plaque dedication for McClain (the plaque will remain in Fitts Park) was one of several activities that over 130 participants enjoyed. Visitors were treated to ice cream, live music, and yoga. In addition, the event provided crisis resources and gun locks to help create and foster a safer environment at home.

Nelson has turned her heartbreak into something both beautiful and necessary. “I wanted to honor my grief and conduct self-reflection without getting stuck in it,” she said. 

For information about Roan Your Boat foundation, visit 

If you are in crisis: National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255; Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741