Good Life

Jana Marie Foundation stomps the stigma surrounding mental illness

Jo Lynn Carney, middle, and Jessica Henry, right, laugh while painting pieces of shoes for the Stompers Project on April 12. The Cedar Clinic teamed up with the Jana Marie Foundation to make a “stomper” to promote suicide awareness and prevention.
Jo Lynn Carney, middle, and Jessica Henry, right, laugh while painting pieces of shoes for the Stompers Project on April 12. The Cedar Clinic teamed up with the Jana Marie Foundation to make a “stomper” to promote suicide awareness and prevention. nmark@centredaily.com

Every once in a while, it’s OK to hit the nail squarely on the head — which is not construction advice, by the way.

For starters, it’s tough to say exactly how many nails are involved in a process that transforms a pile of sneakers into a portrait of mental health.

It’s something to think about come Sunday when the Jana Marie Foundation unveils the latest in its line of “stomper” statues at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of Darkness Walk at Sidney Friedman Park.

The walk marks the 12th occasion on which the nonprofit has used footwear to try and stomp out the stigma surrounding mental illness.

We wanted to do something that would help ignite conversations about mental health.

Marisa Vicere, president of the Jana Marie Foundation

If the pieces are starting to fall into place, if the prospect of a silhouette stitched together from Nikes seems even just a little bit less random now — that’s good.

It’s the metaphor that matters here.

“We wanted to do something that would help ignite conversations about mental health,” Marisa Vicere, president of the Jana Marie Foundation, said.

The nonprofit was named after Vicere’s sister, an accomplished student, GED tutor and counselor, who committed suicide in 2011.

She was 30 years old.

“I really wanted to find a way to help families that were experiencing what we were going through,” Vicere said

She began investigating other local resources devoted to mental health.

While impressed with what she found, Vicere noticed that few of these organizations had incorporated the arts into their programming.

The humanities had always been Jana’s department — jewelry making, poetry, short stories — you name it. A gymnast at heart, Vicere had always felt more comfortable in proximity to a balance beam.

Which is not to say that she didn’t recognize an opportunity when it came along.

That freestanding creative niche would allow Vicere’s burgeoning nonprofit to honor her sister both in name and in spirit.

I really wanted to find a way to help families that were experiencing what we were going through.

Marisa Vicere

The Jana Marie Foundation has sponsored performances of the show “She’s Crazy: Mental Health and Other Myths” at The State Theatre, arranged a one-week sculpture course for the students from the SCASD Delta Program and worked with kids at Park Forest Middle School to build their own stomper.

Vicere believes that working within the arts can act as a therapeutic tool for dealing with stress.

“It’s also a place where you can just let your emotions out and see what comes,” Vicere said.

The stomper project at Park Forest Middle School was part of a two-week series on mental health. The foundation helped to arrange a lineup of guest speakers to address the students.

“We probably had almost 200 kids involved,” said Howard Pillot, learning enrichment/gifted support specialist at Park Forest Middle School.

Pillot stressed the challenges that students face today and the importance of learning how to manage the stresses and anxieties that they will continue to face throughout their lives.

“It was trying to get students to reflect and take a look at what positive mental health means,” Pillot said.

The stomper project originated as a way to deflect — or stomp — some of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Vicere had always liked the idea of incorporating sneakers into some kind of a sculpture, but it took artists Mel Forkner Lesher, Mark Pilato and Chris Bittner to refine the process into something workable.

Bittner, who has experienced his own struggles with depression, thought that the stompers presented an interesting artistic challenge.

He creates the torso and head for each design using patterned sections of lumber.

“Each stomper is made after conversations with young people about mental health issues, so the painting they do on the sneaker parts reflect the topics discussed and their reflections upon the topics,” Bittner said.

The stomper being unveiled during the walk on Sunday is named Strength and the artist hopes that it can serve as a reminder that those suffering from mental illness are in need of help.

“Mental health issues are very common,” Bittner said. “People need understanding and there are a great many helpful resources available.”

The Jana Marie Foundation has several events planned next month to mark Mental Health Awareness Month. For more on the foundation and planned events, visit www.janamarie foundation.org.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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