MIDDLESEX - The COVID-19 crisis has now swept its cancellation boot upon a charity kickball tournament in Woburn, but high school seniors Noah Dhaliwal and Sam Gerry are far from deterred.
Just about a year after successfully organizing "Kick It 2019", the community's first ever kickball tournament aimed at raising suicide awareness, the two college-bound Woburnites found themselves back at square one after being forced late this spring to cancel a return of the immensely successful gathering.
With the teens having themselves experienced a disappointing final year of classes due to the virus, both Class of 2020 seniors could have easily let "Kick It 2020" fall by the wayside like the multitude of other special 5K races, charity dinners, and other non-profit fundraisers now cancelled this year due to COVID-19.
But for Dhaliwal and Gerry, the message was always more important than the event. And as thousands of people find themselves isolated away from friends and loved ones due to the pandemic, the Woburn Memorial High School (WMHS) duo say the cause in now more important than ever.
"When this whole pandemic started and everyone had to be isolated, I personally spoke with a classmate of mine who's an EMT and hadn't seen his family for months because of what he does," explained Dhaliwal in an interview this week with The Middlesex East.
"So we both looked into it to see if the statistics had changed. And sure enough, there are spikes in suicides and suicidal tendencies for people with depression. It's unprecedented what this could do to someone who's isolated, especially if they were already struggling before this happened," added the 18-year-old.
After consulting with relatives, both Woburn teenagers were able to solicit donations to establish a scholarship fundraiser in the place of the second annual kickball tournament. which was originally set for June 27.
Under the alternative, Dhaliwal's grandmother, who had recently established a scholarship in her late spouse's name, agreed to slate that money towards the new fundraiser. Gerry's family soon joined by contributing $1,000 of its own.
Now, the 2020 Kick It Scholarship co-founders hope to spark some earnest conversation about suicide awareness while raising money for the cause by splitting all incoming donations between the final scholarship and a planned donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
The goal, according to the two teens, is to raise $6,000 in total, which would result in the creation of two scholarships (for one male and one female recipient), while $3,000 would go to the suicide awareness organization.
"The Kick It Scholarship will be a donation-based scholarship that will be open to public donations starting today. Thanks to the generous donations from [our families], we have started with a baseline [$1,500] for the scholarship. All donations...will be split in half, with 50 percent going to the scholarship and the other 50 percent going to the AFSP," Gerry and Dwaliwal wrote in a June 27 message to cause supporters.
Big results and startling numbers
At first reluctant to solicit donations from the community with so many families struggling financially due to the pandemic, the Kick It 2020 organizers have since seen money pouring in for the cause, with about half of their $6,000 goal being raised.
According to both recent WMHS graduates, they couldn't be more grateful.
"At the start, we didn't know how donations would look, because people are hurting [financially] right now. But we've had a lot of people reach out to us and say how they've been struggling themselves [with depression] and how glad they are that we're continuing to push this message out," Dhaliwal said.
"Sam and I thought it would gain some traction, but not as much as it has. It's all been facilitated through the support of the community, and we couldn't be more grateful."
According to statistics compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the AFSP, suicide remains ranked amongst the top 10 leading causes of death within the United States, where an average of 130 people take their lives each day.
Federal NIMH officials, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control, say suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged between 10 and 34, while it is the fourth leading cause of death for for those between 35-and-54 years old.
More concerning, according to those trying to spread awareness about the often taboo topic, is a disturbing 16-year-long trend where the total suicide rate climbed by nearly 31 percent between 2001 and 2017.
"[In 2017], 10.6 million adults aged 18 or older reported having serious thoughts about trying to kill themselves, and 1.4 million adults made a non-fatal suicide attempt during the past year. Among those adults who attempted suicide, 1.2 million reported making suicide plans," notes the NIMH on its website.
In Woburn, where the School Committee in 2015 raised the alarm after a behavior survey indicated nearly 14 percent of local teens contemplated suicide over the previous 12 months, issues around depression and emotional trauma are increasingly garnering more attention.
The issue also hits particularly close to home for the two Kick It kickball tournament founders, as the charity event was first created after Gerry documented his own struggles with depression in a blog entry on the American Junior Golf Association website.
Gerry, who is heading to Bates College next year, told readers in an essay that he himself began questioning his desire to live after suffering from an intense months-long bout of depression in 2016. According to the student athlete, who was 14-years-old at the time, he finally turned to his parents for help after realizing he had lost all interest in his passion for golf.
"For reasons I'm still unsure of, I just woke up one morning and felt different. Af first, [I wasn't even dealing] with normal symptoms of depression. I didn't feel sad or down, but I had lost my passion for golf. And for me, that's a huge red flag," the teenager recalled.
"As time progressed, other symptoms did develop, and I started to have dark thoughts. While in the eighth grade at 13 or 14 [years-old], it was difficult to deal with, especially with the stresses of school and golf," Gerry continued, before later explaining that he eventually got help after reaching out to his parents.
According to Dhaliwal, who will attend Boston College next year to study finance, he and Gerry both walked away from last year's charity tournament with the hopes that the event would launch a broader community discussion about suicide prevention.
Ultimately, the inaugural 2019 Kick It Tournament featured games between more than 100 players on 16 separate teams, including a squad fielded by City Hall and local school officials. More than 15 student volunteers also emerged to render help, while hundreds of spectators traveled to WMHS's Connolly Stadium to partake in the community gathering.
In the wake of the event, both Gerry and Dhaliwal were also able to meet directly with Woburn Mayor Scott Galvin to discuss a proposal to establish a suicide awareness initiative at the high school. Ultimately, those talks were cut-short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both WMHS alumni are hopeful those initial conversations will bear fruit.
"The amount of support we got from the student body…we didn't expect that at all," recalled Dhaliwal. "It's been crazy to see so much support from everyone. We're just so grateful."
Those looking for more information about suicide awareness or ways to contribute to the 2020 Kick It cause can type https://www.kickit2020.com/ in a web browser. The event website includes various links to information and a way to sign-up for a charity newsletter.