In the dead of winter is when we could use light and life the most.

That’s one rationale behind a new event presented by Foster’s Voice and The Gray Matters Collective“Everglow,” a dance marathon Saturday, Jan. 14 to raise hope, awareness and funding for mental health counseling and suicide prevention in the Quad Cities.

Each person is asked to raise $40 on the givebutter site OR pay the $40 yourself in online registration. The event — 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at the ballroom of the downtown Rock Island Holiday Inn — includes T-shirt, LED wristband, entry fee, snacks, music, and a great night of dancing.

The top five people who raise the most money will be given a special reward at the end of the night (and of course, bragging rights). All proceeds will go to Foster’s Voice and The Gray Matters Collective, and comes close on the heels of the first sold-out Starry Night Gala on Nov. 19, 2022, at Bettendorf’s Golden Leaf Banquet Center. That was attended by 400 people and raised over $40,000 to help people in need afford mental health counseling.

That money is in a new Foster’s Care Fund, to provide free therapy through QC Counselor.

“We had so many volunteers from the Foster’s Voice school chapters and the Gray Matters chapters that were there,” Haley DeGreve — Gray Matters co-founder and president — said recently, noting there’s a new Galesburg High chapter of Foster’s Voice.

Named for Foster Atwood, the 19-year-old United Township alum who took his life in July 2017, Foster’s Voice Suicide Awareness is geared to people who have been directly affected by suicide.

“Gray Matters and Foster’s Voice, there’s always the mission,” DeGreve said of them both working on suicide prevention. Foster’s father. Kevin Atwood, is the leader of Foster’s Voice, which has monthly meetings and there is also a men’s group.

“I do like when kids come together, where it shows we can come together to do this work, but we reach different people,” she said. “There are a lot of people through Foster’s Voice I would have never have met if not for Foster’s Voice.”

Participants in the first Starry Night Gala, which raised over $40,000 for QC mental health counseling (photo by Kris Bowers).

“It’s really nice to have an organization you can work alongside, and there’s never a competitive nature,” DeGreve said of Gray Matters (formed in early 2019 at Augustana College) partnering with them. “We’re doing this because our hearts are in it. It’s not about whose name gets credit. It’s working together on this, and they’ve been so supportive.”

How Starry Night started

The first Starry Night Gala was inspired by Dutch painter’s Vincent van Gogh’s life and death. The misunderstood, troubled genius suffered from depression and psychotic episodes – culminating July 27, 1890, when he shot himself in the chest, dying two days later at age 37. One of his most famous paintings is called “Starry Night.”

Visitors look at Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at the MoMA exhibit, on March 24, 2004 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“We were talking about, we didn’t want it to be the normal stuff you see in the mental health field, and someone said ‘Starry Night’,” DeGreve recalled. “I took French class in high school and immediately, I remembered we studied van Gogh and I was thinking about the ‘Starry Night’ painting and learning he had painted that during one of the bipolar episodes he was having, and shortly after, took his life.

“For me, it was personal, since I always liked van Gogh’s paintings and loved reading about him. His story was always so tragic,” she said. At the Starry Night Gala, they also displayed sunflowers (which the artist famously painted).

“He loved sunflowers, because they helped him see there was always light even in the darkness,” DeGreve said. “The thing I loved about that was, he loved them so much that when he passed away, his family held sunflowers at his funeral.”

The first Starry Night Gala raised over $40,000 to help provide free mental health counseling for those need.

“It was powerful, as a reminder at the event,” she said, noting the sunflowers at the event were a reminder of the people we’ve lost to suicide. “In the past year, personally, the people I know of, is probably 10. I know there have been so many people I don’t know of.”

On Dec. 29, DeGreve got a call from a local principal saying there was a student suicide, and they didn’t know what to do.

“I think it happens a lot more than people think, and it’s often not publicized,” she said. “I think, it happens so much more than people know.”

The QC has a higher suicide rate than the national average (16.8 per 100,000 residents locally compared to 14.5 nationally), and some of that may be due to barriers to care, DeGreve said. Industries that are common here – like agriculture and manufacturing – also have higher suicide rates, she said.

How ‘Everglow’ started

DeGreve (a 2020 Augie grad who works as a communications specialist for John Deere) was inspired to launch “Everglow” after seeing Coldplay in concert this past May at Soldier Field, which featured LED wristbands.

The rock band Coldplay gives out LED wristbands at its concerts (photo courtesy of Pinterest).

“The whole stadium lights up, and it’s a light show,” she recalled. “It was really cool and after that concert, I was on Cloud 9, and was thinking, we should do something like that for Gray Matters.”

At the Starry Night Gala, a lot of the volunteers stayed after and danced until midnight, and DeGreve suggested another similar event. “That’s where the idea for Everglow came from,” she said. “We picked middle of January intentionally, because post-holidays is always kind of depressing. It’s darkness, so Everglow is all about bringing light into the darkness. The whole event is gonna be kind of glow in the dark, fun, dancing. Kevin and I will speak. It’s just gonna be fun, de-stress, dance. When you dance, you release dopamine in the brain. How do we create a safe, fun event for them?”

It’s also a continuation of the Starry Night Gala light theme, and the Everglow theme song is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” The band uses it to pay tribute to people who have died, and Everglow will honor those who have been lost to suicide, DeGreve said.

Young women at the first Starry Night Gala Nov. 19, 2022 in Rock Island (photo by Kris Bowers).

“It’s about how they’re lighting up the sky and we’re there with them,” she said, noting it will also raise money to support school chapters for Gray Matters and Foster’s Voice, as well as the next Starry Night Gala.

“This is more for the kids to come together and do something different,” she said.

Augustana usually hosts an annual Dance Marathon to benefit the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital in Iowa City.

The Foster’s Care fund will work with Davenport-based QC Counselor to provide therapy to those in need. That practice is owned by Matt Martenson, whom DeGreve met a few years ago.

“QC Counselor has been really good, because they had a sliding pay scale to begin with. They’re always looking for ways to get people there, to get the help they need, even if they can’t afford it. Matt’s been really good to work with, because he’s been very flexible with what we’re looking at and what he can do. Matt is wonderful.”

“We see a lot of people who come to us and don’t have insurance and even if they have insurance, some people’s insurance will make therapy over $100 per session and limit the number of sessions,” DeGreve said.

“If you need therapy every week and you’re struggling to make ends meet, that adds up really quick,” she said. “And therapy is a journey – it’s not three sessions and you’re done. We’re really trying to support people for the long haul.”

They’re already planning another Starry Night Gala for next Nov. 4, 2023 (at the larger Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf) to raise more funds. DeGreve already has lined up a big-name guest speaker, to be announced later.

DeGreve, left, with Kevin and Jaime Atwood at the Starry Night Gala (photo by Kris Bowers).

The first event had a “Mr. Starry Night,” a friendly competition to see who could raise the most money. “We kind of looked at it as a pageant, where they had to answer questions, kind of do a walk,” DeGreve said. “They had to raise money that night, campaign for themselves.”

The winner was Tyler Sand of Port Byron, a 2021 Western Illinois QC graduate who works for a local engineering firm. He raised about $500 and between the three competitors, raised $1,300.

“I kind of bribed people, because I said I would match what I raised,” Sand said. “It was fun.”

He got involved in the cause after meeting Kevin Atwood on a church weekend through Christ the King and has volunteered.

“He’s been at every event, helping to set up and tear down,” DeGreve said. His alma mater, Riverdale High School, started its Gray Matters chapter about a month ago.

Growth in Gray Matters

The Gray Matters Collective first met nearly four years ago, in February 2019 at Augustana and now has chapters at St. Ambrose, Scott Community College, and at least eight local high schools. It’s looking at starting first chapters at a local middle school and elementary school.

“We’re getting emails from California, Georgia, Texas,” DeGreve said. “I’m flying to Austin, Texas to speak at a Zero Suicide Conference this summer and I’m going to Nevada in April to speak at a Zero Suicide Conference there, too.”

DeGreve gave a mental health talk for the TEDxYouth conference April 6, 2022 at the Davenport Central High School auditorium.

The TEDxYouth talk she did last April opened up some doors and expanded the reach of Gray Matters. DeGreve’s Davenport presentation was called “Mental Health, Suicide and the Power of Community.”

There is a Zero Suicide group in the Quad Cities, which was a sponsor of the Starry Night Gala Nov. 19.

The pandemic may result in higher rates as well, since suicides are more common after major, dramatic events, DeGreve said. In 2020, there were 45,979 U.S. suicide deaths, compared to 47,511 in 2019, according to the CDC.

“Historically, when you have post-war, post-pandemic, any major traumatic events, suicides will usually spike,” she said. “That just means we have to be better equipped. That’s another reason for this mental health fund.”

National figures also have changed the way suicides are counted, mainly in drug overdoses. Previously, such overdoses were counted as suicides, but not anymore, DeGreve said. And many times, families don’t want to admit death by suicide.

“If the family wants to report it as death by natural causes, that’s how it will be reported,” she said. “There’s a lot of stigma still attached to that. And a lot of families and friends don’t know where to go from that. It’s such a different, personal death and there’s a guilt and grief involved we see more so, than if a family member passes away from an illness.

Stopping a preventable tragedy

“Suicide – there’s always the ‘what if,’ because it’s so preventable,” DeGreve said. “People put the blame on themselves. When I lost two people last year, I put the blame on myself. What if I would have checked in? what if I would have done this or that? It’s very easy to play that game.”

Stephen (tWitch) Boss attended the Critics Choice Association’s 5th Annual Celebration Of Black Cinema & Television at Fairmont Century Plaza on Dec. 5, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. He died by suicide at 40 on Dec. 13 (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Critics Choice Association).

And sometimes the most depressed, struggling people hide it so well, making prevention very hard, as was the case last month when the popular DJ tWitch (Stephen Boss) died by suicide at 40.

That also was true with the seemingly happy Foster Atwood, DeGreve said.

“He was very popular, homecoming court,” she said. “Kevin talks about it all the time. He had such a bright future ahead of him, but when you’re in those suicidal moments, and I experienced it myself, it’s like tunnel vision. I felt the light was dimming and dimming, and you could see less of your family and friends, an any kind of hope was just fading.

“When someone is suicidal, or just struggling with suicidal ideation, we have to get them help now,” DeGreve said. “If that light continues to fade, a lot of researchers say that can happen in 10 minutes. Someone can go from suicidal to dead in 10 minutes, so we have a very short window as nonprofits, connecting people.”

That’s why what Gray Matters and Foster’s Voice do is so important, to get people the help they need, and empower volunteers to know what to do.

In addition to the 988 crisis line, available 24/7, there are many online resources at Resources — The Gray Matters Collective.

“People need to be educated on what to do, because it can be life or death,” she said. The new 988 suicide prevention hotline already has helped, since it went into effect last July.

“It’s a lot easier for us to promote,” DeGreve said. “When I used to speak, I’d say, call the suicide hotline – it’s 1-800-273-8255 – and people would be like, hold on, can you say that again? I have people put it in their phone.”

Now, 988 is like 911 (easy to remember) and shifts the mentality for people, to raise awareness, she said. “I’ve had to call, and seriously, if I wouldn’t have called, that person wouldn’t be here right now.”

DeGreve also supports veteran suicide prevention, such as the “What’s Your 22?” public awareness campaign.

“When you look at the statistics for veteran men, the rates are really high,” she said. “I like that Foster’s Voice is doing the men’s group. Men in general are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. And statistically, it’s shown that women struggle more with mental health issues, but men have more the means to complete suicide.”

It affects more men, but they are less willing to reach out and get the help they need, DeGreve said.

How to help those struggling

Also, when she speaks to groups, sometimes she’ll have men say they have a daughter who’s struggling and they don’t know what to do. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans age 10-34.

Kevin Atwood and Haley DeGreve are leading QC advocates for suicide prevention.

“That’s why it’s important we work with other nonprofits locally, because there might be a dad who comes to me…and I don’t have that experience being a parent, but I can say I know Kevin and Jaime Atwood who’d be so happy to sit down and talk to you about this.”

Other times, it may be a student who’s going through something, and the Atwoods will refer them to DeGreve. “I’m really trying to reach out and maybe start a young women’s group, because there are a lot of teen girls.”

“We saw with COVID, teen girl suicide attempts went up by 200 percent,” she said. “When you look at the pressures of social media and the things young women struggle with, I’d love to start something to reach that age group. It sems like something that’s really needed, but it’s not being talked about.”

Families of young suicide victims have filed suit against Meta (parent company of Facebook and Instagram), DeGreve noted. That includes in January 2022, a lawsuit was filed against Meta Platforms by the mother of an 11-year-old girl who committed suicide. The lawsuit claims that the girl “struggled for more than two years with an extreme addiction to Instagram and Snapchat,” which resulted in depression, sleep deprivation, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide.

“When they look at a post of a famous person that’s severely Photoshopped and they think that’s the beauty standard, the ideal, we’ve seen eating disorders increase, self-harm increase and suicide increase in that age group – young women 10 to 24,” DeGreve said.

Transition back to in-person school post-COVID also has been hard.

“Most of the kids who come to our school chapters all say, I’m so happy we’re doing this, it’s great to be back in person, but there are some kids during COVID who developed social anxiety,” she said. “It’s almost overwhelming sometimes for kids to do those things.”

What’s the power in not being alone?

Suicide prevention advocates often comfort people hurting by saying they’re not alone and they don’t need to suffer alone.

Among DeGreve’s many awards was being named to the 2022 “40 Under 40” by the Quad Cities Business Journal.

“Your mental health journey is a journey,” DeGreve said. “Whether you walk that alone or with another person makes a big difference. If you stumble along the way, and someone else is there to help pick you up, that does make a difference. There’s a statistic that says if you stand at the base of a mountain and you look at that mountain by yourself, your brain perceives it was 20% steeper than if you’re climbing it with someone next to you.

“That shows your brain actually views the obstacles as more challenging in front of you than if there’s someone doing it with you,” she said. “There is power in community.”

When you have someone with you to take some of the pressure off, and show you’re not alone, it does make a huge difference.

“The brain is more resilient when you have supportive people around you,” DeGreve said. “Human beings – our nature is relational and communal. That’s how we’ve survived all these years.”

Such partnerships and cooperation are essential to preventing suicides, even though it’s still an uncomfortable topic to discuss.

“It does give me hope, because we’re becoming a more compassionate society,” she said. “We just have to stay well-informed with this stuff and up to date with the studies.”

Interview with Robin Williams’ son

DeGreve recently did an interview with Zak Williams, son of the actor/comedian Robin Williams (who died by suicide in 2014 at age 63). Zak will be the first episode in the third season of her podcast, “Surviving The Suck,” released this Friday, Jan. 6.

Zak Williams, Alex Mallick and Robin Williams attended the after party for the closing night of the 49th San Francisco International Film Festival on May 4, 2006 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)

He focuses on “mental hygiene,” like your physical hygiene.

“What do you do for your brain hygiene every day,” DeGreve said. “Is that 10 minutes of meditation, going for a walk? Is that spending time with family and friends? What do you do throughout your day to keep your mental hygiene strong?”

“He is so knowledgeable about the brain,” she said of Zak, who’s now 39. “He talked about his dad, the famous entertainer Robin Williams, and what that was like after his dad passed. He went down a dark road. He met his wife, who actually lost her sister to suicide and they bonded over that.”

They started a company called PYM (which stands for “Prepare Your Mind”), partly because Zak’s middle name is Pym. They make “mood chews,” all natural gummies, to help you calm yourself, DeGreve said.

DeGreve interviewed Zak Williams for her “Surviving the Suck” podcast, in November 2022.

“He was really fascinating to interview,” she said. “He talks a lot about meditation, what helps him. He’s on a few big boards for mental health.”

Zak is the co-founder and CEO of PYM, a mental health support brand, rooted in the belief that everyone can be the best version of themselves simply by establishing daily rituals that support their mind and overall well-being.

DeGreve interviewed him in November 2022, and she had known about PYM before, but she didn’t know that was his middle name.

“I was really grateful he made the time, because he thought it was important,” she said. “He’s really well-spoken. I think everyone will be blown away by how smart he is. I am super excited.”

Celebrities who took their own lives in recent years include (clockwise from upper left): Stephen “tWitch” Boss, Robin Williams, Avicii, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Cheslie Kryst.

Robin Williams (one of the world’s most beloved entertainers) had suffered from Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease. On the day after Stephen Boss’ suicide death, Dec. 14, Gray Matters posted on Facebook a poem about how outward happiness can mask hidden pain: Among its lines:

Sometimes we get so good

At the act

At the entertainment

At wearing the mask

That we can fool ourselves

A little bit

Long enough for the public

To believe

That we

Have it all together

A supportive employer

While it seems her mental health work is a full-time job, DeGreve’s actual paying job has included speaking at many John Deere locations about mental health, including going to Des Moines in the next month.

As part of DeGreve’s work for John Deere, she spoke this past summer to Deere interns (including Claire Mc:Loone, pictured) about prioritizing mental health in the workplace.

“They are very supportive about what I do,” she said of the Moline-based manufacturing giant. “I was always scared it was going to harm. I was always worried talking about mental health and suicide was going to jeopardize my career but at Deere, they’ve been so supportive of it. And so supportive of my work with Gray Matters too.”

While neither Foster’s Voice nor Gray Matters has any paid staff yet, there is a board of directors for each nonprofit. There is a Starry Night committee, an Everglow committee, and a teen group called the “You Matter Crew,” that helps with You Matter series of events.

Bad Boyz Pizza in Moline will do a fundraiser on Monday, Jan. 9, where from 3 to 11:30 p.m., all proceeds will be going to Gray Matters.

“There’s always something to do,” DeGreve said.

To register for the Jan. 14 Everglow, click HERE.