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As head counselor at Sandy's Union Middle School, Nate Edvalson had his hands full this spring.

A seventh-grader committed suicide March 6. Within a month, a ninth-grader died in surgery and another seventh-grader passed away for reasons that have not been revealed.

"You just want it to stop for the kids' sake," said Edvalson. "By the time the third student passed away, everybody was pretty worked up."

Edvalson, 31, who helped students through their grief in one-on-one and group counseling sessions, has been named counselor of the year by the Utah School Counselor Association.

His boss, Lori Jones, Canyons District's comprehensive counseling and guidance coordinator, is quick to point out that she nominated him for the honor before any of the deaths happened.

"Nate is an exceptional counselor and leader," Jones said. "He didn't just step up when there was a tragedy. He has always, since the time he started, tried to do an excellent job for all his students."

Edvalson has spent his five years at Union Middle carrying out interventions with kids who need to get on track academically or in their personal lives, using tools such as Utah Futures, a career planning system, to assist students. He even tutors kids before and after school.

"He looks at every child and asks 'What is the problem? What are three things we can do to help this kiddo be more successful?' " said Union Middle School Principal Mary Anderson. "He cares so much about the kids."

Edvalson says he feels almost like a parent figure to many Union students.

"You love them, and you work your guts out to get them to pass," he said. "You sacrifice for your kids, and sometimes they get it and move forward, and sometimes they don't, and you have to rethink it."

Already dealing with a heavy workload, Edvalson found himself in March in a position in which he never thought he would be. It was especially bad timing because one of Union's two full-time counselors was out for nearly the entire year on family medical leave. The school district sent counselors to help, but much of the burden fell on Edvalson.

"No one expects what happened this year," he said. In the weeks after the deaths, he met with Anderson, school psychologist Joseph Meyers and other staff each Sunday at Anderson's house to determine the best way to help students cope and to kick-start a "Tell Someone" suicide-prevention campaign.

Edvalson began meeting frequently with a small group of students who were friends with the two seventh-graders who had died. He plans to work with the same group when school starts this month. He says he will meet with them all year if necessary.

In addition to helping students, the counselor has been there for Union staff.

"We've had faculty members who have had siblings who have committed suicide or who have lost neighbors or close friends," said Edvalson, a Payson High School graduate who is working on his administrative endorsement at Utah State University. "So when that [first] student passed, they got caught up and emotional. It's not just the students affected."

Whenever anyone at the school knocks on Edvalson's door for help, he "drops whatever he's doing" to assist in any way he can, Anderson said.

It's been tough on the married father of two, who says he tries his best to "leave stuff at work," yet he still found himself dealing with "compassion fatigue" as the weeks wore on.

Summer vacation has provided a much-needed reprieve.

"I'm raring to go. I'm feeling great," Edvalson said. He is already back at work leading a summer program.

While it's tough to look for silver linings when you're talking about the deaths of children, the tragedies have provided a learning experience for all.

"I think adults want to be problem-solvers," Edvalson said. "Sometimes, kids don't need that. They just need someone to listen to them."

Edvalson plans to do more listening, less problem-solving in the future.

As for the students, he said they now have a greater awareness of how they affect each other. They're also more willing to reach out to adults.

Edvalson said many of his students now believe: "Not only is it OK to have problems, it's OK to have someone help me with my problems."