“It took me 21 years to get help,” Damon Parker, The Jones Project Executive Director and keynote speaker, told Chanute High School students recently. After coming to grips with his spiraling mental health challenges, the wrestling coach confided in his wife and family and started an entirely new chapter in life.
He was at a funeral for one of his wife’s colleagues who had died by suicide when Parker faced his biggest fears and made the conscious decision to seek help. “I was at Josh Jones’ funeral, and it hit me. It was like looking into a mirror when I looked in his casket. I was seeing his family in the front row, mourning his loss – and I didn’t want that to be my family,” he said.
Josh Jones worked for the same company Parker’s wife did. He left positive impacts on all of those around him, seeming to be a happy, successful individual. But few people knew the depth to which Jones had depression and anxiety.
Parker, motivated to change the way he embraced his mental health, was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in May 2021. After a lot of soul searching, therapy, and many conversations with Cody Foster, the founder of The Jones Project (and Jones’ best friend), Parker joined the foundation’s efforts, quit coaching his state champion boys wrestling team, and vowed to go on the road to speak to Kansas students about suicide and mental health.
“We have to change the way our country deals with mental health,” commented Parker. “And maybe we can start by talking to our kids.”
Parker relates to students on a level that demonstrates he “gets them.” From sharing about being an overweight elementary student to a state-champion wrestler, his stories span the gamut and draw in even the most disinterested students.
As Parker shared details about his mental health challenges, moments of wishing it could all be over, and how he “found a way,” the Chanute students became increasingly more engaged with his words. He talked with them about “little t” trauma and “big T” trauma – and how “big T” trauma occurs when people experience big emotions without enough support to understand or endure them.
Along with humorous and relatable anecdotes, Parker’s presentation provided a foundation for kids to feel heard and actionable steps for students in crisis and others with no experience with mental health challenges.
The three actionable steps are:
- Understand you are not alone in the way you are feeling.
- Understand you are not alone in the fight.
- Know that there is hope!
Parker tells kids that individuals “can’t be ok with not being ok.”
He concluded his conversation with encouragement to students. “Every one of you in this room has three things: someone who sees you; someone who loves you; and someone who cares about you. Don’t forget that!” he emphasized.
More than Just a Speaker
Parker, not one to step down from a challenge, showed his grit and commitment to The Jones Project when he participated in the 29029, earning The Jones Project $181,000 to use to bring their message to Kansas high school students.
The 29029 is an endurance challenge event where participants have 36 hours to ascend a mountain repeatedly until they have successfully summited the 29,029 feet needed to equal the height of Mount Everest. Pledges to the organization were paid upon Parker’s completion of the challenge.
“It was the most beautiful, terrible, exhilarating, awful thing in my life!” Parker shared. “In the middle of it, I was so sleep- and oxygen-deprived that I, literally, forgot how to put on my socks. We encountered every type of weather imaginable – the thunderstorm between 1 and 4:30 a.m. was relentless. But, I did it!”
Getting that funding was the key for The Jones Project to be able to offer its message to schools free of charge. “We know it’s expensive to hire a motivational speaker to come in and talk to your students. We want to reduce that barrier and provide schools with a way to spread the message that help is available. I don’t want one kid out there to feel lost, because nobody told him that,” commented Parker.
We End Up Where We’re Supposed to Be
Parker is a firm believer in finding passion in whatever direction you’re going. “I hear people telling kids to follow their passions. But that’s not the answer. They need to find joy and drive where they’re at. I hope they know that they add value to others’ lives just the way they are. And, they can be successful by doing just that,” explained Parker.
He elaborated by sharing that five years ago he would have never thought he would quit teaching and coaching the boys’ wrestling team. He wouldn’t have predicted he would stop teaching and only be coaching girls’ wrestling. “The universe works in strange ways,” he mused. “I think I ended up right where I was supposed to be.”
The Jones Project
The Jones Project is a Topeka-based charitable nonprofit foundation committed to changing how society addresses the teen mental health crisis in Kansas. Founded in June 2022 in memory of Josh Jones, who died by suicide in March 2021, the foundation delivers programming at no cost to secondary schools in Kansas. Learn more at: www.thejonesproject.org.