By Frank Ready
Kathy Holland and Erica Miller sit on the board of the CNY chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and have been assigned the task of recruiting promising prospects for the organization’s inaugural bachelor and silent auction. Men drafted into service will be put on display at Justin’s Tuscan Grill on May 4, where they’ve been instructed to come armed with the best date package they can muster.
For Holland and Miller, this particular meat market is all in the service of generating awareness about mental health and removing the social stigma that surrounds suicide.
“Mental health is just as prevalent and just as important as cancer or any physical health and yet it doesn’t receive the same attention,” Holland said.
A kindergarten teacher at Liverpool Elementary, Holland remembers driving to the hospital after learning that her husband, Gene, had made an attempt on his life. Through the window of her car she could see some homeless people, poor and living on the streets of Syracuse, but still alive. She realized that mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
“He had just completed his master’s degree at Le Moyne College, ran seven marathons, was a phenomenal marathon runner, had the most loving parents and five loving siblings that you could dream of, we had a fabulous marriage … It made no difference,” said Holland, whose husband passed away from a traumatic brain injury two years ago.
She began looking for ways to reach out, eventually learning of CNY’s first annual Out of the Darkness Awareness Walk. An AFSP sponsored event held every Columbus Day weekend in Long Branch Park, the walk became a springboard for the launch of a new local AFSP chapter for which Holland gladly volunteered.
The AFSP’s presence in CNY was warmly welcomed by Cazenovia College Professor Erica Miller, who began participating in Out of the Darkness walks in memory of her father, Richard Vernold. Described by his daughter as a kind and generous man, Vernold’s decision to take his own life came as a shock to his family.
“He was a master at hiding it, a master at just pushing it down to the point of where ‘I’m OK.’ Just putting that mask on, that happy face for people,” Miller said.
She became increasingly involved with AFSP, attending chapter meetings, coordinating awareness walks and eventually joining Holland on the chapter’s board. Both women feel that the work they are doing is essential, and they have found ways to incorporate it into their lives as educators.
“That’s one thing where Kathy and I really connect is that we’re both educators. We really see our role as not only working with AFSP, but where in our professions we can tie what we’ve learned from AFSP and the programs that we’re using to connect with folks in the education world. I’ve never had any resistance. Everybody craves this information,” Miller said.
A professor in Cazenovia’s Inclusive Education program, Miller speaks regularly with classes full of future teachers about the negative effects of bullying on mental health, while Holland keeps the faculty at Liverpool Elementary apprised of ways to get involved with the AFSP.
Their search for eligible bachelors began in the spring of 2011, when AFSP CNY named them the chairs of the auction. Justin’s Tuscan Grill offered to waive its room fee as a tribute to Gene, who had worked for the restaurant’s owners before his death.
The co-chairs are just beginning the process of acquiring donations for the silent portion of the auction. But they have been pleased by the response that the AFSP and its various events have received within the CNY community.
“I go into places and I’ll say, ‘Can I put a poster up?’ or ‘Will you do a donation or will you do this … ?’ And I swear 90 percent of the time whoever I communicate with will say, ‘You know, I lost a loved one or friend [to suicide],’” Miller said.