By Katie Ellington, Richland Source, Staff Reporter (Link to Richland Source original story)

LEXINGTON — In the months following Danielle Leedy’s death, her family and friends threw themselves wholeheartedly into an effort that would honor her life and longtime passion for mental health advocacy.

Today, that effort is still going strong.

Leedy’s friends and family founded a non-profit called 33 Forever just four days after she lost her life to suicide in February 2019. The organization works to benefit those experiencing mental health issues through raising awareness, advocacy work, providing educational programming and resources, supporting research efforts and strengthening community support systems for people with mental health issues.

“Dani, she was kind of the go to person for a lot of people. She was their support system. That was really how she lived her life,” said Jeff Heck, Leedy’s stepfather and 33 Forever board chair. “If we can help one person not go through what Dani went through or make the decision that Dani made in that moment, or one family to not have to go through what our family’s gone through, then what we’re doing is worth it.”

Since its inception, 33 Forever has partnered with the local affiliate of the National Alliance Mental Illness (NAMI) to bring a program called “Ending the Silence” to local school districts. The presentation helps students, staff and families learn about the warning signs of mental health conditions and what steps to take if a person or their loved one is showing symptoms of a mental health condition.

“Its so important to talk to the youth and 33 Forever understands that,” said Mary Kay Pierce, executive director of NAMI Richland County. “You can’t have good physical health without good mental health and if we can teach how to stay mentally health to our children, it can so help in the long run.”

According to NAMI’s website, half of people with a mental illness have signs and symptoms by age 14. Seventy five percent of people will have signs and symptoms before the age of 24.

“The takeaway is we know the signs, they’re very treatable and we can help,” Pierce said. “That’s what we want to make sure the students know is that there’s a lot of hope and how to reach out for help.”

33 Forever also provided funding for NAMI on Campus, which provides mental health awareness and support services for students at OSU Mansfield and North Central State College. The board hopes to help fund similar programs at more colleges in Ohio in the future.

Meanwhile, the community has rallied around 33 Forever. The organization raised a record amount earlier this month at its Second Annual Golf Outing, Silent Auction and Charity Event.