Difficult as it is to believe, Damon Parker is a much better man than he was 18 months ago.
He’s a better husband, and a better dad. He’s a better coach, although he’s no longer a teacher. He’s healthier, even — 60 pounds lighter and in better shape than he’s been in years.
It took the biggest and most terrifying admission of his life — that he wasn’t OK and needed help — to get there.
Ever since that fateful day in March 2021 when Parker began to recognize his inner demons, he’s been on a journey of self-improvement and healing, dealing with mental scars and trauma he’d long ignored since his days as a star football player and state champion wrestler.
Along that journey, he’s found an opportunity to do better not only by himself, but also by others, helping more people deal with their mental struggles. It’s a journey he will take on the road in August, visiting thousands of students across the state as a motivational speaker through his new organization, The Jones Project.
But first, Parker faces one of the biggest and most terrifying challenges in his life, one he’s still not sure he’s ready for.
Thirty-six hours of pain on the 29029.
How Josh Jones changed Damon Parker’s life, without ever meeting
Josh Jones was a best friend to anyone he met, but Cody Foster counts himself lucky that he was one of his closest.
Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel, had hired Jones over a decade ago, and Jones quickly became one of his most trusted employees, serving as Foster’s chief of staff for three years.
He was the company’s unofficial welcoming committee for new employees — the kind of guy with a big, inviting smile who could put anyone at ease, Foster said.
“He had such an outgoing personality, and he was like everyone’s best friend,” Foster said. “That’s what made it so much harder for people to comprehend what made him take his life. … He battled anxiety and depression for about as long as I’d known him, but my assumption knowing more now is that he probably battled it his entire life.”
Jones’ death by suicide was a shock, and it sent waves through the Topeka community, even to people who had never directly met Jones. Damon Parker was one of those people.
And as he accompanied his wife, who worked with Jones, to the funeral, he saw much of himself as he looked down on Jones’ casket — a man who fought every day to be the best husband, father and friend he could be but struggled to take care of himself.
“It was like looking in a mirror,” Parker told The Capital-Journal in 2021.
As Foster eulogized Jones, he emphatically pointed to a need to change the conversation around mental health and to figure out a way to change something bad like Jones’ death into a catalyst for something good for others.
For Parker, Foster’s eulogy was exactly that — his prompt to change the direction of his life. He started immediately by confessing his mental struggles to his wife, Lindsay, after the funeral, and he realized he needed to devote more time to helping himself, starting with resigning as coach of the state champion boys’ wrestling program he had developed over the previous decade.
As he opened up publicly about his struggles, he and Foster began talking and became good friends, and out of those initial conversations began talking about what they could do about “the second pandemic.”
The Jones Project will reach thousands of Kansas kids and more
At 6-foot-1-inch tall, Damon Parker and his booming voice are the stereotype of a wrestling coach.
He’s lighter now, but he’s kept his champion wrestler physique up in the decades since high school, and after his run as head of Washburn Rural’s dynastic boys wrestling team, he’s the epitome of success. Parker remains coach of the two-time state champion girls wrestling team.
And that’s what makes him the perfect person to talk about mental health.
Even before his mental health realization, and even before COVID-19, Parker used to divide his school year into football season in the fall, wrestling season in the winter and speaking season in the spring, booking gigs to talk with groups about motivation, teamwork and inspiration.
All anyone wants him to talk about now, though, is mental health.
“Trauma is generally the genesis of mental health struggles, and after the pandemic and shutdowns, I think everyone has had trauma, whether it’s been with a big or little T,” Parker said.
As he got to talking with Foster, though, the pair began to realize there was a big gap for that kind of speaker, especially for smaller schools without the means to bring in big names. At a minimum, a speaker who is “halfway decent” will cost a school $5,000 to book, and coming off of COVID, that can be a barrier for a lot of schools, especially when the need is the highest.
Per the 2022 Kansas Communities that Care Survey, almost two in five Kansas teenagers have reported feeling symptoms of depression, reaching a record high since the annual survey began asking about mental health in 2014.
Nearly a third of teens reported having seriously thought about killing themselves, and 22% of teens reported having actually made a suicide plan.
Twelve percent reported they had actually attempted to kill themselves at some point in their lives.
Out of those numbers and Parker’s conversations with Foster came The Jones Project, a new Topeka-based nonprofit organization, named after Josh Jones, that will fight for Kansas students’ mental health through advocacy, awareness and motivational speeches.
For Parker, it almost feels as his life has led up to this moment, with all of his past experiences and struggles giving him the tools he needs to relate to students and those struggling with mental health. You might not realize it from looking at him, but Parker started his career as a kindergarten teacher, later transitioning to a high school physical education teacher.
“The only difference is that kindergartners won’t cuss as much,” he joked, “but the high schoolers get your humor a little better.”
It’s that wide gamut of perspectives, especially coming from someone who people might not expect to struggle with mental health, that will be key in connecting to kids, he said.
“In the ’90s, it was, ‘Keep your head down, do the work and don’t complain,'” Parker said. “But there comes a time when all of that stuff bottled up inside of you comes up and explodes. I know there a lot of kids out there who might be able to relate in seeing someone who has been a successful athlete and state champion coach come out and say, ‘This is real.”
Keeping the momentum on mental health
Even just a few years ago, mental health conversations still carried a high stigma, but Parker has been inspired by momentum the pandemic brought to the issue. Nowadays, teenagers are much more open about their struggles and much more willing to seek help.
The Jones Project, then, will keep that momentum and prevent the pendulum from swinging back.
As the executive director for the fledgling organization, Parker will be a keynote speaker available free of charge to any schools that wish to book him. At each school, he’ll speak with students about his own struggles and talk through ways students can manage and regulate their emotions, leaving behind curriculum schools can use to implement mental health strategies.
Parker doesn’t have any specific schools lined up, but the grand goal is to start with schools around Kansas, then expand to cover more schools around the region, as well as adult groups once The Jones Project is more firmly established.
He imagines that once he’s ready, it will only be a matter of picking up the phone.
“Schools want to address this, and they’re doing what they can with a very limited budget,” Parker said. “This work we’re doing, it’s going to be so important, because schools will not bat an eye to get someone in for free. … I think we’ll have a hard time fitting everyone into the schedule once we open the floodgates.”
Much of the organization’s get-off-the-ground funding is coming from Foster, Advisors Excel and various individual donors, but The Jones Project’s goal will be to get a more diverse and steadier stream of funding through private donors and nonprofit grants.
“If we can save one life, it will have been worth it,” Foster said. “I hope we can save more than that, but just being able to get in front of the kids, who are kind of vulnerable right now, and making them feel comfortable in hearing from someone who’s been through it, that’s where Coach Parker can come in.”
Eventually, Parker’s goal is to grow The Jones Project to one day hold annual mental health summits in Topeka, and to make it a destination space for mental health advocacy and awareness in the U.S.
“Topeka used to be the mental health capital of the world, back when Menninger’s was running,” he said. “Now there’s a void, and we want to bring that title back and bring in thought leaders and professionals from all around the country for weeklong events, kind of like they do with South by Southwest.”
The organization’s overall goals are ambitious, but Parker isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
“It is (ambitious), but we won’t be doing anything small,” Parker said. “Go big or go home.”
Becoming a part of something bigger
In the Wasatch mountain range in northern Utah, rocky ridges rise thousands of feet as the sunset-facing relief of the greater Rocky Mountains, and the imposing fence looming over the American southwest’s Great Basin.
These are “the defining characteristic of Northern Utah,” and each winter, thousands of skiers zoom down the mountains’ steep inclines.
Damon Parker plans to climb up one of them 15 times.
As part of a fundraiser for The Jones Project, Parker is part of a team of Advisors Excel staff and partners that will trek up a mountain several times as part of the 29029 hiking race. The team will start at the Snowbasin Resort, located 6,300 above sea level, and hike up a 2.3-mile path that also gains 2,300 foot of vertical elevation.
At the top of the climb, they’ll take a 12-minute gondola down the mountain, and repeat 15 times. Naps and aid stations help the participants, but over the course of the race, competitors end up hiking over 30 miles and over 30,000 feet of elevation.
The challenge is in completing it under 36 hours.
In mountaineering parlance, “Everest” becomes a verb — one that few can claim to have done in the past tense. It’s the equivalent of climbing the 29,000 feet that make Mount Everest the tallest summit in the world.
Despite being in great physical condition, Parker is still nervous about the trek. Racers usually train for the race for the greater part of a year, but Parker only recently dove into the intense training, now working out for three to four hours each day in the weeks ahead of the mid-August race.
It’s as big a physical challenge as any Parker has ever met, but one he’s willing to tackle if it helps support The Jones Projects’ goal to save children’s lives.
“One: Everybody needs something in their life that scares them a little bit, and this scares the life out of me,” Parker said. “Two: Everybody needs something in their life that’s bigger than themselves, and with what we’re doing in Utah and the mission of the Jones Project — all of this is so much bigger than me.”
Working with partners all over the nation, the Advisors Excel team will hope to take advantage of a 3-to-1 dollar match to turn a $29,000 fundraising goal to over $100,000 for The Jones Project. The team is still taking donations online ahead of the Aug. 18 climb.
“If we can accomplish our goal with the project, we’re going to be able to make a difference in so many kids’ lives,” Parker added. “When I’m walking up that mountain, I’m not going to complain about the blisters on my feet or that my knees are hurting. Thirty-six hours of physical pain is nothing if it means changing the world, one school at a time.”
The training has dominated Parker’s life as of late, but he counts on the forgiving patience of a wife and children “who understand the importance of what we’re trying to do here.”
Parker is as healthy as he has ever been, and he continues to make strides in improving his mental health. He counts himself as a more present father and husband than he ever used to be.
“I think I’m also a much more empathetic human being,” Parker said. “But I think the problem was that while I’ve always cared for other people, I used to care for other people more than myself.”
Ahead of what he hopes will be a full year of touring and speaking with students around Kansas, Parker is looking forward to making any difference he can. While he never met Josh Jones, Parker is thankful that Jones’ mental health struggles inspired him to face his own.
It’s all part of his journey to do better every day.
“I’ll be proud to know that I contributed to communities all around my home state, and that I did that in a positive manner,” Parker said. “That’s why I loved being a teacher, in contributing to the lives of kids. Now I’ll have the opportunity to take that beyond one building.”
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.