Pitches will be floating and home runs will be flying, but the inaugural Chris Collins Foundation Wiffle Ball Tournament will also include a conversation.
“I think people will feel a little uncomfortable when we start talking about mental illness, but that’s kind of the goal,” organizer Justin Hayes said. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about because of the stigma. But when you talk about it once and twice and three times, it becomes a little easier. Hopefully, by the end of the tournament, kids who have felt anxious or depressed or don’t really know what’s going on with them can feel a little more comfortable talking to their parents or their friends about it. That’s really the whole goal.”
The tournament – set for Aug. 18 at Tuckertown Park in South Kingstown – will raise funds for the foundation, but opening up a dialogue is the larger objective. The same will be true at a music event that will be held Sunday at Pump House Music Works.
The foundation was created soon after the death of Chris Collins at the age of 20 earlier this year. The South Kingstown High School graduate – a former baseball star for the Rebels – battled serious depression and anxiety.
“Immediately after his death, we got so many letters from his friends talking about how much he supported them, how he was the one person that helped them through a tough time, through their own depression or anxiety - and this was all while he was suffering immensely,” said Mark Collins, Chris’ father. “It really blew our minds as to how he could do that, and that’s when we realized we needed to try to continue what he was doing.”
The foundation is promoting a peer-to-peer model to local schools. Created at the University of Michigan, the program trains peer leaders to build a campaign for awareness, education and understanding in their schools.
“In a school, the peer leaders kind of set the social norms on things,” Collins said. “The goal of this program is to tap into that leadership across the whole student body, all types of kids, and let them kind of set the social norm regarding mental illness - that it’s something a high percentage of kids are dealing with in some form. What this program does is it helps to recognize it, talk about it, support it and then promote help-seeking.”
South Kingstown High School and Narragansett High School will both adopt the program for the upcoming school year, and several other schools have expressed interest.
“The goal is to add more schools each year,” Collins said. “Once we get into a high school, we’ll add a middle school in that town. The goal is to build it throughout the whole state and the region.”
This summer’s events aim to support the foundation and raise awareness in their own way.
Ben Graves, a former classmate of Chris Collins, approached the family about hosting the Pump House event to honor Chris’ passion for music. The event - dubbed “We Are All in This Together” - will feature live bands, a silent auction and an open mic portion that will allow the crowd to share their experiences. There is a suggested donation of $5. Doors open at 5 p.m.
“It’s great if they donate, but I really just want people to come and enjoy the music and hear the message,” Graves said. “If we can get the word out there, get more people talking about mental illness in general, I think it’s a wonderful thing. I deal with my own anxiety and depression, so that was a driving force for getting involved. I want it to be a bigger deal and not have things like this swept under the rug. The people who have helped me most through my tough times have always been my good friends.”
The wiffle ball tournament was a natural fit given Chris’ baseball prowess. Hayes, a former teammate, got the idea from his college roommate, who was part of a benefit tournament for a friend dealing with an illness.
“Chris and I played baseball together so I just thought it was a perfect setup,” Hayes said. “I talked with Mr. Collins and his family, and they really liked the idea. The ball started rolling and a lot of people have shown interest. It’s going to be a really cool event.”
The tournament will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will likely feature pool play to start, followed by a playoff bracket. It is open to all ages, though South Kingstown High School’s recent baseball success might make teams of former Rebels the favorites.
Hayes is hoping to make the tournament an annual event, with the conversations expanding every year.
“I’ve known Chris since I was 6 or 7. We played baseball kind of our whole lives together,” Hayes said. “It’s an important issue, and a lot of kids our age can’t imagine one of their friends suffering from this because they just see outside. People think they’re too cool to have a mental illness. I think Chris was a prime example of that. He was smart, good at sports, good-looking - everything you want when you’re in high school. And nobody could see that guy suffering. That’s just the stigma surrounding it.”
With swings of a wiffle bat, strums of a guitar and more, the foundation is aiming to start changing that.
“These guys have been great in terms of putting these events together and working really hard behind the scenes,” Collins said. “It’s really a testament to Chris that so many people are working hard to spread the word about the foundation, raise some money and, more importantly, raise awareness.”