When life serves up tragedy, volleyball and activism bring support that helps La Center teen Tiffany Chandler
LA CENTER — Tiffany Chandler no longer lives in the childhood home of her dreams.
The place she and her mother, Sharrin Chandler McDade, describe as life in paradise — a two-story home that sits on a peaceful 5 acres with serene Columbia River views — is where Tiffany’s 15-year-old sister, Courtney, and father, Justun, chose to end their lives the same day in May 2016.
A spot too beautiful to ever leave became too painful to stay.
“I miss it so much,” Tiffany said. “All my memories there were so pretty.”
Except for one day.
More than three years have passed since mother and daughter lost the two most important people in their lives by suicide. But happier moments still resonate in photos throughout their new home in a La Center subdivision. It’s minutes from La Center High School, where Tiffany is a junior, and not outside city limits where it took emergency responders 20 minutes to reach a chaotic and tragic scene May 19, 2016.
But Tiffany’s journey isn’t about sad tales; it’s about plunging forward. From an unimaginable tragedy emerged perseverance, strength and love.
Mother and daughter, together.
“That one, for sure,” McDade said, looking proudly at Tiffany. “And to watch her personality match her physical beauty she has … it’s been one of my prouder moments.”
For Tiffany, the silver lining is what’s occurred since: She’s found solace in the one sport — volleyball — she and her sister never shared, and it’s led to a big high-school career. She and her mother are advocates for promoting conversations on mental health by what’s turned into a family mission to help others: “Ask a question: save a life.”
“It’s allowing us to bring a lot more light to suicide,” Tiffany said, “and it helps us see it, too.”
• • •
Tiffany’s favorite photo of her late sister and father hangs framed beside seven other photos in the entryway of the family’s home. What makes it special for the 16-year-old is that, like many of them, it’s pure — “So goofy,” she said — with dad and daughters, together, in fun-loving times on the coast months before their lives changed.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States overall, with an estimated 45,000 dying by suicide each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Today, mother and youngest daughter make sure an annual photo is taken of Chandler’s Champions. It’s a close-knit group of friends and family who walk in Courtney and Justun’s memory at Portland’s Out of the Darkness Walk, an annual event that unites those affected by suicide.
McDade, 42, was featured on stage at the Oct. 5 event in front of more than 3,000 participants as a suicide loss survivor who had a child die by suicide, and a subsequent suicide by her husband as a result of their daughter’s death. The losses have pushed Tiffany and her mom to become advocates for promoting conversations on mental health and ensuring people have the resources they need.
“People should realize suicide is an actual thing,” Tiffany said. “It affects people around us.
“It happens more than you think. Suicide is terrible, but the fact that communities come together and do a thing like this is pretty cool.”
Long before suicide awareness became a family mission, and well before Tiffany’s rise to prominence in La Center’s volleyball program, Sharrin Campbell was a single mom of a toddler, Allison, from her first marriage. She met Justun Chandler in 2000.
The couple married five months later. Twenty-one months separated the couple’s two daughters together, Courtney and Tiffany.
Justun worked in sales after serving four years in the Army. Tiffany displays a photo of a clean-cut man in uniform on her nightstand. His firm, disciplinarian parenting still resonates today.
“I realize it now,” Tiffany said, “that maybe it was necessary.”
The sisters couldn’t have been more opposite. At 5-foot-9 with naturally curly blonde hair, Tiffany is the self-proclaimed better athlete who loves to push boundaries and test limits. Courtney, with long brown hair since young childhood, often buried herself in a good novel and had a smile that matched her infectious laugh.
Oh, that laugh, Tiffany said, made others laugh.
“It’d be contagious,” she said.
The family moved from Vancouver to La Center in 2010 to a place that made the Chandlers feel like an All-American family: a two-story home on a large piece of property with a garage, shed, a classic car, and ATVs.
Both parents umpired Little League games, and the sisters shared softball, wrestling, gymnastics and soccer together.
• • •
Tiffany doesn’t like the word “anniversary” when mid-May rolls around every year. Anniversaries are happy dates, she says. Instead, it’s the death date.
For sister Courtney, that’s officially May 21, 2016 — the day she was taken off life support at Portland’s Randall Children’s Hospital.
That’s not how Tiffany remembers her sister. She sees a fun-loving, competitive, happy Courtney who surrounded herself with good people and animals.
Courtney would be 18 today and a Class of 2019 La Center High graduate. McDade doesn’t know why Courtney took her life. She said her daughter experienced bullying, but outside of typical teenage stressors and a full plate with school, a job and volunteering, she never noticed strange behavior in the months before her daughter died.
That’s why nothing felt out of the ordinary the early morning of May 19, 2016 until her husband found their daughter.
“That was the last calm moment in that house,” McDade said.
Courtney’s miniature pitbull, Puppy, barked uncontrollably. Husband and wife of 15 years began CPR while on the phone with 911.
McDade doesn’t know why, but the panic and shock that consumed her husband proved too much. She witnessed two tragedies that day when Justun ran to grab the family pistol. She watched as his limp body fell onto their daughter’s.
Justun, 40, died minutes later. Courtney still clung to life.
“I had to roll him off of her,” McDade said, “so I could continue CPR.”
Courtney never regained consciousness. Earlier that morning, she had kissed her mother on the forehead and said she loved her.
• • •
Tiffany was 13 at the time and already at school when the scene at home unfolded. She and her mother were reunited in the emergency room.
McDade’s biggest concern and scariest moments turned to her youngest daughter. How do you keep her from hurting? How you make sure she’s OK? To protect her?
“I didn’t know what those answers were,” McDade said.
A test to determine if Courtney was brain dead was performed 12 hours after arriving by ambulance in critical condition. Her family extended time on life support for organ donations.
Family and friends arrived. McDade never left Courtney’s side. Tiffany visited with her sister, but never to say goodbye.
The hospital and its staff that took exceptional care of Courtney, the family said, is why Tiffany puts on an annual toy drive to benefit the hospital in her sister’s memory. Every May, Tiffany delivers items she collects through year-round donations.
“It’s getting my message across with my gratitude,” Tiffany said, “and how much I still want to do for them.”
In 2018, La Center’s student government got involved in donation efforts. Volleyball teammate Katie Leslie, also an associated student body vice president, helped the junior class push efforts schoolwide to give Tiffany a big assist.
Through donations from businesses, community members and anonymous contributors, Tiffany collected 1,253 toys. Help from the high school boosted that number.
Said Leslie: “We got her the platform she needs to spread the awareness.”
• • •
Inside the family’s three-car garage is a volleyball hitting machine that sits near the family’s deep-purple 1973 Dodge Charger.
This is where Tiffany puts in extra practice. Volleyball is an oasis, whether the garage or a gymnasium.
Tiffany turned to one of the two fall sports offered for girls in eighth grade at La Center Middle School as a way to occupy her free time months following the deaths. Later, she joined the locally based Excel NW Volleyball Club.
Volleyball is among La Center’s most popular sports for girls at the middle and high schools, said Matt Cooke, La Center School District’s director of athletics. This year, 34 players are spread over three high school teams.
Soon, volleyball became must-have for Tiffany when anger and depression spilled over into the start of high school.
Tiffany has teachers who also taught Courtney, and she continues to push through challenges and personal struggles of losing loved ones by suicide. She admits anger is a big challenge.
That’s why nothing matches an outlet quite like volleyball, she said, and her second family stands behind her daily.
When La Center beat league-rival Seton Catholic in five sets Oct. 17, Tiffany had a match-best 28 kills, 23 digs and six serving aces playing middle hitter for the second time this fall. In the fifth-set tiebreaker, she served five consecutive points and pounded the match-ending kill on a set by Ceanna Johnston. She and her teammates erupted in celebration, falling to the La Center gym floor and winning their third best-of-five match this season.
Moments like that are why she loves the game.
“They were screaming at me, but that was all Ceanna,” Tiffany said of her teammate’s assist. “She took that pass and turned it into a beautiful set. … It was really cool.”
That match meant more to Tiffany, too. It happened days after her uncle’s sudden passing, which brought on a flood of emotions for her. She chose to play in the team’s two matches the week of Oct. 14, as a way to find joy and seek camaraderie.
“I put a lot of pressure for them to go well,” she said, “and pressure on myself to be happy.”
Teammates draw inspiration from their junior leader. Her work ethic and devotion don’t go unnoticed, said Leslie, the ASB vice president.
“This kid has so much energy,” said Leslie, the team’s libero, a defensive specialist. “She loves the game so much. … She’s the strongest person I know.”
Said senior outside hitter Abby Banholzer: “Tiffany always is putting in 110 percent and pushes everyone else on the floor to do 110 percent.”
High school athletes often say their teams are as close as a family, and it’s especially true at La Center, Banholzer said, adding, “That’s what’s different — we do have a genuine love and care for each other and it’s helped us grow super close.”
Tiffany’s natural athleticism and quick progression earned her a varsity spot as a freshman, despite one year of previous playing experience. Volleyball stretches familywide, too. McDade is a La Center team statistician and her new husband of four months, Dan McDade, is a team filmer.
Head coach Cymany O’Brien, in her sixth season coaching her alma mater, has watched firsthand Tiffany’s growth into a polished player, and a person who through despair found triumph thanks to hope, love and volleyball, and became a champion of suicide awareness.
“These girls celebrate her successes with her, lift her up and thank her for her fun and energy on the court,” O’Brien said. “It’s helped her evolve in a different way and just be Tiffany in whatever that is for that day.”
Southwest Washington Crisis Line: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 1-800-626-8137.
Teen Talk for Clark County youth: 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m. Friday. 360-397-2428.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).