“Music is good for your mental health.”
That’s what the lead singer of the sextet Cozy told the crowd that had gathered at Hard’ack Recreation Area in St. Albans for the festival known as Afterglow. It was early afternoon on a sunny fall Saturday, and as attendees continued to eat, drink, and dance into the night, it looked like the singer was right.
Andrea Wells and John Holzscheiter co-founded the Afterglow Foundation in honor of their son, AJ, a star athlete who, after a series of devastating knee injuries, died by suicide at age 18. Since 2019, they’ve organized an annual music festival whose proceeds support several local organizations that focus on mental health.
“After he passed, we were trying to think of what we could do to raise awareness on suicide,” Wells said. “We didn’t want the typical golf tournament, that kind of stuff. So we were like, we’ve got to do something with music because AJ just loved music.”
A handful of corporate sponsors – Deringer, Heritage Ford, Heritage Toyota, The Vermont Agency, and TI Advisors – cover the cost of putting on the show, which allows all the money from ticket sales, raffles, and donations to go to the cause of suicide prevention. This year, Wells and Holzscheiter hoped lots of Vermonters would turn out to see a headliner from New York City, the 1980s tribute band Rubix Kube.
“The past three years, we’ve always done three local bands,” Wells said. “But we knew we had to step up the game to start bringing in bigger crowds.”
On Sept. 23, food trucks, local breweries, and kid-friendly activities such as a climbing wall, cornhole, and face-painting contributed to a festive atmosphere. Between bands, however, speakers took the stage to talk about the impacts of suicide and suicidality.
One of them came from Northwest Counseling and Support Services, the community mental health center for Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Emergency Services Program Director Tony Stevens recalled losing his older brother to suicide in 1997.
“My brother had made one prior suicide attempt when he was 17 and a junior in high school,” he remembered. “I can honestly say that in those seven years since he made that first attempt to when he ended his life by suicide, we didn’t talk about suicide as a family.”
After his speech, Stevens praised Afterglow’s contribution to normalizing such discussions.
“I think this is an incredible example today of just making it okay to talk about: just sort of having conversations, providing resources, making it comfortable to have fun, be in a sort of normal social atmosphere, but understand a little more about it, or talk to organizations that can provide resources or help, which can feel very different than walking through the doors of a clinic,” he told Counterpoint.
Another speaker, former Navy SEAL Bill Atkinson, testified to the power of peer-to-peer connection at a moment of hopelessness in his own life. Following his military service, Atkinson had struggled to find stability or get along with other civilians.
“I didn’t understand, with all my education and training and skills, why people didn’t hire me, why I wasn’t a good fit, why I didn’t seem to belong,” he recollected. “I thought about ending my life. I thought, ‘Jeez, I’m a failure. I’m a screw-up. My time in the SEAL teams, I was somebody, but I’m not somebody anymore.’”
“The VA suggested I go to this place called Josh’s House,” Atkinson continued, “because it was a place for veterans to meet, to speak the same language, to understand each other, to tell stories, to have fun, to rebuild that camaraderie that all of us knew as service members.”
Atkinson now volunteers as a cook at Josh’s House, a wellness center that offers meals, games, a gym, and massages for veterans in Colchester.
Its parent organization, the Josh Pallotta Fund (named after a former Vermont National Guardsman who died by suicide in 2014), received a share of Afterglow’s revenue, which totaled $55,000. The rest went to NCSS, the Vermont chapter of the American Federation of Suicide Prevention, and the St. Albans Department of Recreation.