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Prudential

Capt. Mark Lee, a New Jersey firefighter for nearly 30 years, lived his whole life helping and serving others.

He wanted to do more than his "job."

He wanted to keep helping, even after the fires were put out.


Lee and some of his fellow firefighters in 1987. All images via Cheryl Lee, used with permission.

If a family in the community lost all their belongings in a fire, Mark would come back later to hand-deliver clothes, toothbrushes, and anything else they might need.

"He was also a roofer," his wife, Cheryl, said. "So if someone had a fire in their house and he had worked that fire, the next day he would get back in his truck and go repair their roof for them so they would be able to go back home."

Mark wanted to be there for his neighborhood. "If you had something going on, he would just sit on the front bench of the firehouse, just sit down and talk to people," said Carina Escolastico, who lives across the street from the firehouse. "He always had a smile for everybody. It was motivating to have him around you because he would just bring positive energy."

When people were injured in a fire, Mark would visit them in the hospital, and if they died, he would attend their funerals.

Lee and some of his fellow firefighters outside the fire station during the Jersey City Fire Department toy drive in the 1990s.

"He just took care of the community all of the time," Cheryl said.

Mark would even spring into action on family vacations if help was needed. In Mexico, he rescued five men from drowning after they got caught in a riptide.

But in his community, he was especially driven to help the children.

When he first became a fireman, Cheryl said, he started a new tradition for the kids in his neighborhood: free ice cream. "Every Friday payday, he bought the whole neighborhood ice cream. And I would say, 'Honey, you just got the paycheck,' and he would just say to me, 'But the kids are waiting for their ice cream.'"

Lee wrapping gifts for the toy drive.

Mark also helped build playgrounds in the neighborhood, worked with the Special Olympics, and, for 27 years, led the Jersey City Fire Department’s annual toy drive so that he could make sure that no child was without a present for the holidays.

"[The toy drive] just kept getting bigger and bigger every year," remembered retired firefighter Thomas Facciola, who worked alongside Mark at the firehouse for about 20 years. "It was almost like a yearlong thing because he would keep adding people. ... He would go to all the churches and schools, to all the projects, just to add more kids to the list."

Carina said she will never forget when Mark delivered toys to her daughter as part of the Christmas drive. In 2009, she had given birth to baby girl diagnosed with health issues and brain damage, and as a new single mother alone for the holidays, Carina said she felt down and a little depressed. But Mark brought her new family cheer.  

"He just knocked on my door and said 'Merry Christmas,' and he gave [my daughter] her first toys and stuff," she recalled. "He brought a lot of joy to me and my baby at that time. ... He brought tears to my eyes."

On 9/11, Mark was one of the first responders.

Lee and other first responders at Ground Zero.

Mark had worked a 24-hour shift the day before 9/11, and he had planned to take the next day off, Cheryl said, but as soon as he heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, he headed straight into the city.

And he stayed at the site for seven straight days.

"He ate there and slept there. ... He did search-and-rescue, he worked on the bucket line," Cheryl explained. "He came home, and he had a very bad cough, you know."

Lee and other first responders at Ground Zero.

Years later, Mark began to develop a series of chronic illnesses associated with his efforts at Ground Zero.

Mark worked as long as he could, both in the line of duty and through his volunteer causes, until he was too sick to continue.

"He went into the hospital in January [2014], and they said he couldn’t work anymore, but he said to me, 'I’m going back, I’m going back,'" Cheryl remembered. "And he told the doctors. He told everybody, 'I can do this. I can do this,' but in reality, he really couldn’t."

Mark died at the age of 54 on May 9, 2014. Even in death, he helped others by being an organ donor — donating his corneas and skin for burn victims.

Cheryl Lee and one of the Engine 10 firetrucks dedicated in memory of her husband.

Before he died, Mark's family made him a promise that they would continue his work for him in his memory. And they are doing just that.

Cheryl now volunteers with a number of local community organizations, including the toy drive, which they have renamed the Capt. Mark Lee Christmas Fund Drive in his memory.

The Lees and others at the 2013 toy drive.

Mark chose to live his life knowing that every decision you make — from the biggest to the smallest — affects others.

Whether it is being there to listen to a neighbor or helping families rebuild after a tragedy, any positive action can help make someone else's day just a little bit better. Even if these gestures seem small at the time, they can have lasting impacts on our communities for the better.

Carina recently applied to have the street with his firehouse dedicated to Mark because of the lasting effects he had on his community. "We still miss him. We will always miss him, and that is why we want to dedicate the street to him to recognize all his hard work — 29 years serving our community."

Through his service in the line of duty and his volunteer work, Mark worked diligently to make the world a better place not only for his own family, but for his community. And in the process, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps.

Lee and his son.

"If we had fruit in the house, [my daughter] would cross over to the firehouse and bring an apple, a banana, ever since she was two," said Carina. Her daughter is now seven. "She thought that Mark was nice — he would give her toys — so she still remembers him."

And Cheryl said her family was inspired to do good, too. "My son is just like him … [and Mark], he inspired me. He made me who I am today," Cheryl said. "He touched so many lives, and he will continue to touch their lives. We will make sure of that."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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