LEXINGTON -- In the months following Danielle Leedy’s death, her family and friends threw themselves wholeheartedly into an effort that would honor her life and longtime passion for mental health advocacy.
Today, that effort is still going strong.
Leedy’s friends and family founded a non-profit called 33 Forever just four days after she lost her life to suicide in February 2019. The organization works to benefit those experiencing mental health issues through raising awareness, advocacy work, providing educational programming and resources, supporting research efforts and strengthening community support systems for people with mental health issues.
“Dani, she was kind of the go to person for a lot of people. She was their support system. That was really how she lived her life,” said Jeff Heck, Leedy’s stepfather and 33 Forever board chair. “If we can help one person not go through what Dani went through or make the decision that Dani made in that moment, or one family to not have to go through what our family’s gone through, then what we’re doing is worth it."
Since its inception, 33 Forever has partnered with the local affiliate of the National Alliance Mental Illness (NAMI) to bring a program called “Ending the Silence” to local school districts. The presentation helps students, staff and families learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what steps to take if a person or their loved one is showing symptoms of a mental health condition.
“Its so important to talk to the youth and 33 Forever understands that," said Mary Kay Pierce, executive director of NAMI Richland County. “You can’t have good physical health without good mental health and if we can teach how to stay mentally health to our children, it can so help in the long run.”
According to NAMI's website, half of people with a mental illness have signs and symptoms by age 14. Seventy five percent of people will have signs and symptoms before the age of 24.
“The takeaway is we know the signs, they're very treatable and we can help," Pierce said. "That’s what we want to make sure the students know is that there’s a lot of hope and how to reach out for help.”
33 Forever also provided funding for NAMI on Campus, which provides mental health awareness and support services for students at OSU Mansfield and North Central State College. The board hopes to help fund similar programs at more colleges in Ohio in the future.
Meanwhile, the community has rallied around 33 Forever. The organization raised a record amount earlier this month at its Second Annual Golf Outing, Silent Auction and Charity Event.
Donna Heck, Leedy’s mother and 33 Forever board president, said the inaugural event in 2019 raised over $42,000, but the board was trying to be realistic about its expectations this year.
“We were not sure we could even have the event this year and obviously we had to alter what we did last year given COVID issues we had to accommodate,” she said.
Nevertheless, the community rallied around the cause, with more individual and business sponsors and more golfers than last year. The silent auction, which was held online, raised nearly double last year’s contributions. In the end, the event raised more than $53,000.
“We were blown away by the community’s response, especially in the economic times we have all faced during the pandemic. The Mansfield community is truly amazing with the support it provides for important issues like mental health,” Heck said.
Just a few weeks after the fundraiser, Lexington High School decided to raise money for 33 Forever by allowing seniors to purchase a parking spot for the school year. For $20, seniors could reserve and paint a parking spot.
“We thought of 33 Forever for this fundraiser because we wanted to address the stigma of mental health issues in teens. Also, to encourage them to reach out to someone and not remain silent if they need help,” said Principal Kevin Young.
The school also provided information about mental health every day for a week during the morning announcements.
"33 Forever is important to us as a Lexington family because Dani Leedy was a Lex grad. We feel a special bond with the organization and the Leedy family because Dani was one of ours," said Holly Rice, a history teacher at Lexington.
"Each year we see students affected by mental health issues. We want our students to know we are here for them, we are a resource, and we will help them."
Senior Alison Owen said she believes mental health is a relevant topic for high school students.
“I feel like no one really talks about it, but everyone’s dealing with it,” Owens said.
Her classmate Sophie Dininger agreed, noting that it's helpful to raise awareness about mental health issues, even among those who don’t experience them.
“That way they can help people around them,” she explained.
Young said the school raised more than $900 for 33 Forever through its parking lot fundraiser.
Heck, Leedy’s stepfather and board chair of 33 Forever, thanked the community for “stepping up” during a difficult year.
“It’s really gratifying because it's such a huge problem, not just in our area but all over the country, and especially at this time with all the extra stress and anxiety and problems that people are having with their mental health because of COVID,” Heck said.
In the future, 33 Forever hopes to fund additional programs in the area along with mental health research. The board is currently assembling an advisory committee of mental health professionals.
“We’re trying to start slow and make sure we don’t get ahead of ourselves and that we’re good stewards of the money people are giving us," Heck said. "We’re working with (the Mental Health & Recovery Services Board of Richland County), Catalyst Life Services and a number of other mental health providers to try to make sure where we put our money makes the most sense for our community."