Cayla Verteese Gala

In a Missourian file photo, Northwest senior Cayla Verteese (second from left) walks in the fall 2020 homecoming parade representing Active Minds. Verteese is working with the St. Francis Foundation to help advocate for mental health. 

The St. Francis Foundation modified its annual gala to a completely virtual experience this year in the midst of COVID-19. Guests will gather on a real-time live broadcast via a link sent to them with their ticket and enjoy a tropical vacation “stay in” from the comfort of their own homes. 

The event will feature a mobile silent auction, gift baskets, food, live entertainment and guest speakers sharing a message of encouragement for those battling mental health issues. Beginning 7 p.m. Feb. 20, the gala aims to highlight the vast need of mental health resources in the local community through its “Hope Lives Here” theme. 

Everyone who attends the event will receive a “stay in” kit which features a spirit bottle of choice, cocktail syrup accompaniments, spa essentials, a custom candle and other items. All proceeds from the event will go toward initiatives of adding different resources throughout the community. 

Several people were chosen as mental health ambassadors with the St. Francis Foundation to raise awareness and advocate for those struggling. One of them was Northwest senior Cayla Vertreese, who shared her story with the foundation. She discussed her own experience in battling mental health issues and beginning a career of advocacy at Northwest. 

“Mental health has become a huge passion of mine. … I don’t think it’s been talked about very much at all, and with that, I want to be a voice for change,” Vertreese said in a promotional video for the gala.

Vertreese is the president of Active Minds, a campus organization focused on changing the conversation about mental health. The gala, she said, will help the community to have access to resources similar to those Northwest students have. 

These resources have been attainable through a campus-wide conversation on the reality of mental health battles, Vertreese said. She is the youngest ambassador to ever work with the St. Francis Foundation, and along with her involvement at the University, her ambassador role includes connecting other people to the “Hope Lives Here” cause through outreach and spreading their message. 

“I think education is one of the most important aspects when we are talking about mental health,” Vertreese said. “I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we are seeing depression rates at the highest they’ve ever been before, anxiety rates at the highest they’ve ever been before, the highest suicide rates you’ve ever seen before, and we are seeing this crisis in our country, that I think that’s attributed to a lack of mental health education."

Talking about mental health has become a little more popular now, Vertreese said, because it’s gotten so bad. A proactive approach instead of simply reacting to the crisis is what Vertreese and the St. Francis Foundation are looking to achieve in the local community. 

With many mental health resources lacking in Maryville and throughout Nodaway County, funds raised in this year's gala will aim to fill those gaps. The St. Francis Foundation is looking to add telehealth, more online counselors for schools, programming for social and emotional development and competancy, emotional intelligence and suicide prevention training, among other initiatives. 

Another mental health ambassador for this year’s gala is Nick Rucker. Rucker is a country music artist and U.S. army soldier who struggled with mental illness and alcohol use, and he now uses his story to encourage others. Music played a big role in Rucker’s daily recovery, along with support groups he gained in Omaha, Nebraska, where he now lives.

Rucker is a Nodaway County native who grew up 20 minutes north of Maryville. Remembering back to his younger years, the stigmas surrounding mental health were a problem in local communities. 

But the recent push for more conversations by the St. Francis Foundation and its mental health ambassadors is a good sign, Rucker said. Knowing that palpable change is happening to provide mental health resources in the greater Maryville area means people won’t feel as alone in their battles.

“This event is extremely important,” Rucker said. “Back when I lived there, the overall culture in Maryville was not stemmed around coming forward and saying, ‘Hey, I have a problem,’ it was more like, you kept it to yourself. You weren’t chastised, but you were, you know, different.”

“For me, it was the alcohol side of things,” Rucker said. “And in a town where it’s very college oriented — half the population is college kids — and just rural farming community where alcohol is kind of a big deal, why don’t we have a gameplan that makes people aware or better rather than, ‘Oh, so and so got their fifth DWI.’” 

Rucker said this experience, though, is not limited to small towns across America; it is a nationwide crisis that is often uncomfortable to discuss but needs to happen.  

“It’s like, what are we doing here, what’s the game plan moving forward or are we going to accept that this is just reality, or are we going to make it better?” Rucker said.

Rucker performed a virtual concert Jan. 23 in honor of the gala to continue the message of “Hope Lives Here” — a message Rucker, Vertreese and all the other ambassadors will continue to push ahead of the Feb. 20 gala. 

Clarence Green, University police chief and vice president of culture, encouraged the local community to contribute to this year’s St. Francis Foundation gala and spread mental health awareness. 

“Our community has faced a substantial increase in mental health related incidents,” Green said in a Facebook video. “The Maryville community is a special place, and it deserves a united front on improving our mental health.” 

Several other prominent community members, including Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong, have spoken up about mental health issues in the greater Maryville area.

This year’s gala offers 12 different sponsorship levels, ranging from $350 to $5,000, each including special benefits, one being a meal of choice, is included with the virtual event.

To register for this year’s gala, visit the St. Francis Foundation Facebook page or the 2021 event website.

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