Jim Kuczo’s drive, he said, is clear. It’s to spread kindness in the name of his late son, Kevin.

“The hope of that keeps me going,” Kuczo said, “that I’ll make change, positive change, in my son’s name.”

That mission brings him to Wilton on Monday, Feb. 13, from 7:30-9 p.m., where he will lead “A Real Conversation About Mental Health” at Trackside Teen Center, sharing his family’s story to help other people who are struggling.

“The more I talk about it, the more people are going to realize that it’s prominent and it’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay to not be okay.”

Kuczo’s son, Kevin, took his own life at the age of 17 after battling depression. Last weekend marked the two-year anniversary of Kevin’s death.

Kevin was a junior at Fairfield Warde High School who played football and lacrosse. He was a lifeguard at the Westport YMCA and a volunteer on an Appalachian service project who was described as a ray of sunshine and the reason people looked forward to going to class.

“He had friends that loved him. He loved to volunteer,” his father said. “His love for helping people, I want to share that with people.”

Since then, Kevin’s parents Jim and Kristen Kuczo created Kevin’s Afterglow, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in Fairfield to tackle mental health and spread kindness at four education levels. 

“Our mission is to teach kids kindness and empathy, the ability to give to others, [and] listen to others,” Kuczo said.

Kevin had struggled with high-functioning depression, sometimes called “smiling depression.”

“Depression is real and it can make you think things that are not reality, if you will,” Kuczo said. “We want people to talk to know that it is common, it’s treatable, it’s beatable, and other people out there just like you are going through the same thing.”

At the Trackside event, Kuczo will share his family’s story for the first time in Wilton, and invite questions from the moderator and the audience. He wants kids here to know they are not alone, and that there is hope.

“When I talk I usually have one, two or three people come up, kids who are literally shaking saying, ‘I felt just like your son,’” Kuczo said. “It’s powerful.”

The event is recommended for people ages 12-years-old and up, and will be moderated by Lori Fields, the executive director of Trackside. 

The event is also sponsored by Wilton Public Schools, the Town of Wilton and Wilton Pride

Fields said the event has been in the works for several months and is part of Trackside’s new discussion series aimed at fostering authentic community conversations as part of the organization’s umbrella of wellness initiatives. 

“Part of the way to address mental health is to have more open, real and honest conversations about what our teens are really facing,” Fields said. “Kevin’s story is an opportunity for us to do that.”

Kevin’s Afterglow Mission

Kevin’s Afterglow’s mission extends beyond talks to parent education, mental health awareness at multiple grade levels, and an annual Golf Classic. Last year’s golf outing raised money that helped fund buddy benches and a scholarship. [Writer’s note: Kuczo invites anyone who has donations to put up for auction at this year’s Golf Classic, to reach out]. 

The charity’s implementation of ‘buddy benches’ at elementary schools — a gift given by Kristen’s fellow teachers in Darien, to Kevin’s elementary school, and now made by Jim for Fairfield schools and beyond — is also a way the Kuczos are helping young kids know that they can ask for help.

“If we can get [young kids] to say, ‘Hey, here’s a bench if you feel don’t feel good, go sit on it, and the rules are someone is supposed to help you,’ that’s at its most basic form a child asking for help, and then receiving it,” Kuczo said. “It’s almost reinforcing that fact that when they get older, it’ll be easier to ask for help.”

Kuczo is building the benches himself, at his home. The goal, he said, is to have a buddy bench in each of the Fairfield public schools by the end of the school year. There is also a bench going in at Saint Mary School in Milford and another at Cranberry Elementary School in Norwalk, where Jim went to school. Donations made at the Trackside event will support Kuczo’s goal of bringing buddy benches to Wilton’s schools as well. 

Additionally, Kevin’s Afterglow also provides scholarships for teenagers interested in becoming pediatric therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists. In this way, Kuczo said, the non-profit aims to address the pediatric mental health crisis, the increase in depression and anxiety in children and teenagers, and unmet support needs.

“There’s not enough doctors to treat these children,” Kuczo said. “We experienced that ourselves trying to find a therapist and a psychiatrist who could dispense medicine. We went through a string of doctors, I’d say about 15 before we found a psychiatrist that was able to treat Kevin, and after that, it was too late, to be honest with you. And I know another woman … and she went through 48 doctors to help her son.”

According to Kuczo, social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the mental health emergency — it was something that he said exacerbated Kevin’s depression.

The stigma around mental health can also prevent people from seeking help. Kuczo believes talking openly about mental health can start to change how people think about it. 

“We want to tell kids that that’s okay and even so that there is help for this and we can talk about it. Just like someone who has a heart disease would go see a cardiologist,” he said. “There are doctors that can help you.”

At the root of the mission is kindness. 

“If you can do anything, just be kind to someone in his name,” Kuczo said. “Be a kindness multiplier, and do a kind act. That could make a difference in someone’s life that day.”

Wilton’s Mental Health Resources

Mental health resources are available in Wilton, and increasing.

Sarah Heath, director of Wilton Social Services, said her department and specifically Wilton Youth Services are here for families who need help. Though the department itself does not provide counseling, the staff works hard to connect families with referrals. For youth and teenagers, there are town funds to help families pay costs not covered by insurance.

Just this week, after two years in the making, Wilton Social Services contracted with Positive Directions in Westport to provide free counseling to Wilton families that need it.

“They can go directly to Positive Directions for intake, for assessment and for ongoing counseling that can be covered by the town,” Heath said.

Heath said the office will still make referrals and help pay for counseling, but this provides a way for direct contact. Westport and Weston’s social services are also part of the partnership.

“It’s a Counseling Assistance Program — CAP is what we’re calling it — and it will be able to have families [get help] more directly and more immediate response from them,” Heath said, “so that we have at least two families a week being able to access the help and then we can increase that.”

Heath added that families can find support and assistance from so many organizations and resources designed to help, including the Wilton YMCA, the Wilton Library, Trackside, the Wilton Police Department, places of worship, and the schools.

“It’s not just one person in town,” Heath said. “It’s a whole host of options that they may have or they can do research on their own or we can help them with that research if they need it, to make sure they’re getting the support they need.”

Looking Forward, Asking for Help

Heath’s message to Wilton kids, teens or adults who are struggling or hesitant to seek mental health support — don’t hesitate to reach out and ask.

“There’s always going to be different levels of help, and different levels of care for people, but my department is happy to work directly with them and we’re completely confidential and discreet,” Heath said. “And that’s really important that people know that.”

Fields, a licensed clinical social worker and experienced life coach, said Trackside’s goal of supporting kids — from providing a safe space for them to come to and be themselves, to hosting events like Kevin’s Afterglow’s visit — is essential to their wellbeing. 

“Adolescence is inherently a psychological crisis,” Fields said. “Even if you have one person that you can turn to, to listen to, or that believes in you, it makes a meaningful difference. In that regard, we’re honored to be able to give Jim a chance to share this story.”

Much of the responsibility for helping Wilton families find support falls to the Wilton Public Schools. Kim Zemo, the district’s Safe School Climate Coordinator, is grateful that the schools are a participating partner in this event.

“It is essential to engage our community in a discussion around youth mental health issues and suicide prevention. We continue to see an increase in the number of students and families impacted by mental health related concerns. We believe educating our community and sharing resources is a critical component to prevention,” she said, adding that a newly formed school club called Hope Squad promotes suicide prevention and will be a part of this event.

As far as his long-term goal for Kevin’s Afterglow, Kuczo said it’s to let people know they are loved and supported.

“I want people to know that there is love for them too,” Kuczo said. “If we can all share that with each other, if we could tell each other that we love each other, do kind acts, we do have the power to turn someone’s life around and choose life.”

“I want people to choose life,” he added. “I want them to have hope.”

Registration for Monday’s event is free. The event is Monday, Feb. 13, from 7:30-9 p.m., at Trackside Teen Center (15 Station Rd.). Register online and visit the Trackside website for more information.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, help is available now. Call or text 988, or chat 988lifeline.org. These services are free and confidential.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) CT  Crisis Line is 800.467.3135.

Wilton’s Social Services Department hosted a webinar Monday, Feb. 6, aimed at helping families navigate talking about mental health and suicide with their kids. The department has posted a recording, an infographic with a list of Wilton-specific resources and contacts and a PDF.