With all the pomp and ceremony befitting the occasion, Will graduated from high school last week. If an 18-year-old boy could be described as “giddy,” that’s the best word that sums up the current situation. In September he will head off to Middlebury College in Vermont as a recruited lacrosse player, certain in his decision that this is where his future for the next four years will best unfold.
But he did have some moments of questioning. About whether he was blindly following a pre-programmed track. Whether his identity as a scholar-athlete needed to be further explored and developed, perhaps rounding it out with poet, musician and possibly coder-programmer.
He thought for more than a minute about taking a gap year. And then circled back to Plan A. Will’s introspection is not unusual; this is a vulnerable juncture in the life of a young adult. The future looms wide and uncertain. So many choices! So many questions! So much confusion! These thoughts can be paralyzing and in some cases, overwhelming to the point of despair.
Eight years ago, Kenny Baker faced exactly the same kinds of questions as he prepared to graduate from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. But his self-doubt was compounded by his struggle with mental illness, a brew of anxiety and depression that, despite the love of his family, girlfriend and community, did not grant him a vision of the future that beckoned brightly around the bend.
And so just a few short weeks before graduation, Kenny took his own life. In doing so, he changed the arc of his family’s life forever, in a way that at the time seemed devastating to the point of hopelessness, but in the eight years since, has taken on a powerful momentum, saving lives and changing the conversation about mental illness and young people.
In 2010, one year after Kenny’s suicide, Tricia and Kurt, his parents, along with Kaitlyn, his sister, launched Attitudes In Reverse with the mission of saving young people’s lives by educating them about mental health and suicide prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10 to 24-year-olds nationwide.
Since AIR’s founding, AIR Heroes have visited schools in three states and have presented to over 60,000 students. Attitudes In Reverse targets colleges and universities throughout New Jersey to prevent suicides with a variety of programs.
Coming Up for AIR is an educational program that helps young people feel comfortable discussing these difficult topics.
In Their Shoes is a powerful and poignant exhibit consisting of 265 pairs of shoes that represent the number of 10- to 24-year-old New Jersey residents who have taken their own lives over the past several years. The shoes have tags with statements representing thoughts youth have when they experience emotional or mental difficulties.
Youth Mental Health First Aid provides training for faculty and staff. The annual Miki and Friends 5K Walk & Run for AIR Event, just completed last month, brings together dog lovers and therapy dogs to raise money for mental health awareness.
AIR’s programs run on volunteer power and rely on donations. The Bakers could not do their life-saving work without the generosity of their supporters and the greater community as well. And in recent years, their reach has been hitting a critical point, with awards and recognition finally giving them some much-needed traction, and the momentum continues.
Last month, Tricia and Kurt were named as the $35,000 recipients of the 2017 Russ Berrie Making a Difference Award, given to New Jersey’s most extraordinary unsung heroes in recognition of their compassion and concern for others.
In 2016, the Plainsboro Township Human Relations Council presented AIR with the Dr. Martin Luther King “Make a Difference” Volunteer Award. 2015 was a big year with the receipt of both the New Jersey Heroes’ Award and the Princeton Family Centennial Award for Social Responsibility.
AIR has received a huge lift from the support of Jared Padalecki and Mark Pellegrino, stars of the hit television program Supernatural. Both actors lost close friends to suicide and have teamed up with the Bakers to help spread AIR’s message across the country. It’s working, as AIR has recently established chapters in California and Arizona and is planning chapter launches in Minnesota and Texas.
As a friend who has been with the Bakers from the beginning of their journey, I am proud of all they have accomplished and the lives they have saved. But the victories are bittersweet. The Bakers would not be where they are today without the huge, gaping hole in their lives created by the absence of their sweet, smiling Kenny.
Just 19 when he slipped the bonds of his illness, he would have been 27 years old this year, most likely a college graduate, perhaps well into the swing of his career, laughing and loving and living it up with his friends and spending time with his dad and grandfather on this upcoming Father’s Day.
But for everything he and his family have missed, there are others who can thank AIR and the Bakers for giving them another chance. To graduate from high school, celebrate, and go bravely forward into a future that is uncertain, yes, but loaded with hope and the promise of happiness.