Editor's note: Mental health resources for UR students include CAPS, at CAPS@richmond.edu or 804.289.8119; The CAPS warmline at 240.219.6060; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255.
Friends and family of Augustus “Gus” Lee, former student and football player at the University of Richmond, announced on Feb. 5 the launch of a fund in his memory.
The Gus Lee Fund is a charitable organization that aims to carry on Lee’s legacy of kindness by providing opportunities for mentorship and academic scholarship to young adults applying for or in college, according to the website.
“The pain of losing Gus continues, but we strive to make something positive out of this tragedy,” Chris and Phyllis Lee wrote on the fund’s website.
Lee was 20 years old when he died by suicide on Dec. 9, 2018. Since then, Chris and Phyllis have been considering ways to honor Lee's legacy of kindness by building a community that can carry it far into the future, they wrote.
“We've kind of been percolating the idea and finally said, ‘Let's do this,’” Chris said.
Russ Huesman, head coach of UR’s football team, was unaware of the fund, but thought it was a fantastic idea, he said.
“You know, we loved Gus... and I'm glad that they're doing things like this to keep his memory going,” he said.
The fund was created for both financial assistance and support in the form of mentorship. The mentorship program would provide support throughout the college application process, the FAFSA application, life at school, internships, career guidance and preparation for life after college, according to the website.
The mentorship aspect is what sets the fund apart from other scholarship opportunities, and is something that Chris and Phyllis feel is as important as the scholarship money itself, Chris said. The goal is for the graduating classes of scholarship recipients to honor Lee's legacy by paying it forward and mentoring future recipients.
“We're hoping that providing this advice and mentorship to these kids will give them a higher rate of success,” Phyllis said.
After Lee's death, UR’s Athletics Department, in conjunction with Counseling and Psychological Services, hired its first athletics staff psychologist, Rachel Turk. Her position aims to destigmatize student-athletes seeking mental health services by understanding the athletic culture and being integrated as a part of their team, so she can work to reduce the barriers of getting help, she wrote in an email to The Collegian.
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“People view student-athletes as a very ‘privileged’ population who have ‘everything handed to them,’” Turk wrote. “However, student-athletes often have more resources at their disposal because they often also have more barriers.”
Since the creation of the position, the rate of student-athletes seeking mental health services at UR has increased by over 75%, she wrote.
Turk expressed her support of the fund and how important mentorship models were, especially when students could connect with someone who both shared similarities with them and could serve as a role model, she wrote.
Because the fund is an entirely volunteer-based organization, anyone can apply to be in the first set of mentors to help scholarship recipients navigate the various elements of life in college, Phyllis said.
“It's providing kind of that support infrastructure that a lot of kids have from their families – but a lot of them don't,” Chris said.
Phyllis and Chris said they hoped that the team of mentors would also include young people who were more in tune with what’s going on on college campuses, like friends of Lee and friends of theirs who just graduated college.
“Oftentimes, people are more willing to open up to someone they view as being ‘like them’ or that has had similar experiences,” Turk wrote.
Mentorship is also beneficial because it is a more informal source of support to be there for students throughout their days and weeks as needed without the barrier of formal time commitment and scheduling appointments, she wrote.
Just having someone to keep in touch with and meet every once in a while for lunch or coffee could go a long way, Phyllis said. Mentors could then report back to Chris and Phyllis and let them know if a kid seemed homesick so that they could reach out to them and offer extra support, she said.
A huge benefit of mentorship is that it can significantly reduce feelings of isolation because you always have someone to rely on, Turk wrote.
“There is a specific culture of athletics to ‘be strong’ or ‘toughen-up’ that does not always promote help-seeking, and there is a fear of being seen as weak if coaches or teammates find out that they are struggling or getting help,” Turk wrote.
By checking in with the kids, they would hopefully be able to help their mental health and anxiety levels that could have otherwise gone unnoticed, Phyllis said.
“You know, I guess it just shows it can happen to anybody because I thought, you know, Gus was a rising star – in life – to be honest with you, just because of the student-athlete that he was,” Huesman said.
Although some kids might assimilate into college life immediately, others might not, so having mentors to touch base with these students could make a real difference, Phyllis said.
“I think that that would be a wonderful thing – if we could provide for a kid, you know, a little extra TLC [Tender Loving Care] on campus for their first year,” Phyllis said.
The mentorship component could be especially helpful at bigger schools, Phyllis said. Although the fund will not restrict any applicants, Chris said they would also probably focus their efforts in the Washington Metropolitan area because that's where the Lee family is from.
“A prototypical candidate will be someone who's very talented, very smart, could benefit from going to a good school and doesn't have the financial resources to do that,” he said.
They are still considering making more changes to the fund, including focusing on a scholar-athlete component, Chris said.
“Gus was a preferred walk-on at Richmond," he said. "And he was fortunate that financial aid wasn't something he had to worry about.”
But that’s not always the case, and it’s possible that an athlete would not be able to go play their sport and attend the school because they don't have the financial resources, he said.
Another category of applicants they would love to fill is first-generation college students, Phyllis said.
“I can only imagine all of the stumbling blocks that they face in the application process,” she said. “We would love to be able to help a student like that, whose parents might not be familiar with the entire process.”
Because Lee was a constant source of kindness, love and support to everyone in his life, they hope to honor his desire to help people by providing a key to what would otherwise be a closed door, they wrote.
“It keeps his memory with us,” Huesman said. “No question about that.”
Follow this link to listen to Phyllis and one of Lee's childhood friends talk about the importance of mental health.
Contact news editor Natasha Sokoloff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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