By Jean Shanley
03/19/08 — Victoria (Vicki) Van Meter, who died Saturday at her home, will be remembered by many as the 11-year-old Meadville girl who set a lofty record when she piloted a plane across the United States — and then flew from America to Europe at age 12.
But after being in the national spotlight for many months because of those historic flights, she slipped into a more private life which included serving two years with the Peace Corps.
She also fought her own personal battle with depression, an illness which cost her her life. Crawford County Chief Deputy Coroner Scott Schell ruled her death was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound late Saturday. She was discovered by a neighbor, Michael Thiess, at 5 p.m. Sunday at her home on Grove Street.
Vicki, who was 26, is a daughter of Jim and Corinne Van Meter. Corinne said Vicki’s problems started after puberty and the family always knew she had bouts of depression, but “we thought she was coping with it.” Vicki didn’t take any medication and found it very hard to discuss her feelings, her mother said.
Still, it didn’t prevent her from graduating summa cum laude from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and then fulfilling another lifetime dream: serving in the Peace Corps. She served from 2005 to 2007 in Cahul, Moldova, which located between the Ukraine and Romania. She was a community and organization-development volunteer, specializing in writing grants and being a consultant and translator, having learned the language within a few weeks after her assignment, her mother said.
She returned to Meadville last year and became a surveillance investigator with a firm with clients in a tri-state area.
But she continued to fight the depression.
Corinne said Vicki decided just this month to apply to graduate schools to earn a master’s degree in psychology with the ultimate goal to help young people who struggled with depression.
In one of her essays for graduate school, Vicki wrote, “I believe it remains an important tool to remove the stigma from the act of seeking out the help of a mental health care provider. It is especially crucial that young people are encouraged to share personal issues with professionals in order to catch any mental or emotional problems at an early age when issues can be addressed and properly treated.”
Daniel Van Meter, Vicki’s brother, said that she opposed medication, and agreed that her family thought she had been dealing with her problems.
“She was unhappy, but it was hard for her to open up about that and we all thought that she was coping,” Daniel said. “This really is a shock, because we didn’t see the signs.”
Corinne said she spoke to her daughter nearly every day. On their shared birthday, March 13, Vicki called her mother and told her that she was cooking and enjoying a glass of wine with her two dogs and cat.
“She’d call me on the phone and she’d say happy birthday ... and then I’d say to her happy birthday, happy birthday,” Van Meter said. “We will miss her dearly, but we are very, very aware that she is doing important work somewhere else right now.”
“She led a full and interesting life. She had more guts than any of us could ever imagine,” Corinne said.
The courage she faced in her battle inspired her family.
“This was her battle; she fought; she didn’t win that day (the day she took her life),” Corinne said.
But the family hopes that her death in some way will lead to help for others facing the same battle.
“We can’t truly understand how deep she was hurting,” Corinne said, noting, “It came at the end of a week that she had happy moments.”
She remembered the young girl with the huge smile after achieving her dream of flying across the country and said, “That’s what she was striving to get back” (the happiness of her youth).
Vicki’s sister, Elizabeth, said, “She was an inspiration in my life. She was the smartest person I ever knew. She had more guts than anybody I ever met in my life. I’m going to miss her so much.”
“Through her remarkable life, she touched countless lives. We all know she is not finished,” Corinne said.
Funeral arrangements are under direction of Byham-Miller-Mizner Funeral Home and haven’t been announced.