Kenny Baker was a kind-hearted young man that any parent would be proud of. In spite of his dyslexia, he was a math honor student. He was brilliant…when tested at the age of six, he was found to have the long-term memory of a 29 year old. He was a star swimmer on two swim teams. Kenny was a life guard at the local YWCA for over four years. He had many friends, as he was respectful to all people, peers, teachers, adults. He was a good listener. He had a girlfriend. Everybody loved Kenny.
At the age of 15 years old when he was diagnosed with Depression, the bottom dropped out of his world. Within a year, he was also diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder. Kenny was embarrassed by his illness and told most people that he had mono for over three years. His illness prevented him from attending the local high school, so many friends drifted away. Kenny found some public educators did not understand his illness, or side affects from the medications, and said mean, hurtful things to him. No one chooses to be mentally ill and no one can “just snap out of it”.
Kenny bravely battled against his illness, compliant with doctors, following all forms of treatment. Kenny was in emotional and physical pain. Kenny battled his “invisible illness”, as well as the stigma of this illness. At the age of 19, just three weeks before graduation from high school, the pain was too great. On May 19, 2009, Kenny ended his pain and ended his life.
Sadly,the discrimination continued after his death. At that time, the administration of the local high school believed that suicide was about “looking for attention”, and as a result, less than 10 staff from the high school attended Kenny’s wake and funeral. The school administration suggested that Kenny’s photo be covered by a sticker in the 1,500 yearbooks to be distributed that year, basically erasing Kenny’s memory, and the existence of mental illness, in the high school. Each day, Kenny’s sister, Katelyn had to battle this discrimination, as she was only a sophomore in that high school when Kenny died.
From this discrimination, A.I.R. was born. The concept of A.I.R. was Katelyn’s. Mental illness is like air. Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It is all around us. Katelyn won a 2010 NJ Governor’s Ambassador Award for her concept.
We are happy to report that A.I.R.’s continued communication with this high school, has brought about an important change. In April 2011, Katelyn and her good friend, Nick, who also lost a brother to suicide, presented to 410 Juniors in that high school. Of those 410 students, 18 went looking for help. A.I.R. has been invited back to speak in May 2012 to educate the current Junior class about mental health and suicide prevention.
A.I.R.’s mission is to educate about mental illness, to prevent suicides, but just as important is to educate so that no one is mis-judged or criticized because they have a biological-based brain illness. All people, no matter what their differences, should be treated with respect and kindness.
Kenny was a kind, thoughtful, quiet soul, who always put others before himself. There were many times, during his hospitalizations, he would give other kids his clothes, because they would have no more than the clothes on their back. We want to continue to help others, doing work that would make Kenny proud of us.