In October 2015, the local community was stunned by the sudden death of 15-year-old high school sophomore Maya Gold. A bright, empathetic, outgoing girl with no history of mental illness, Maya committed suicide after a few weeks of experimenting with high doses of over-the-counter cold remedies, spurred on by a circle of acquaintances who were using such medications to get high. The toxicology report showed that she had ingested enough dextromethorphan to induce hallucinations and delusional thinking, while her cellphone history provided a window into a hidden youth culture of sexual harassment and belittling of young women, along with the peer pressure to chug cough syrup.
All across town, parents of teens who showed no obvious signs of being unstable, troubled or bullied were saying to each other, “This could have been our kid.” There was a tremendous outpouring of support for Maya’s family and heightened interest in building networks of support for teens who feel isolated, both in the schools and in the broader community. If anything, in the wake of the COVID shutdowns, that sense of isolation has now become more widespread and the need for intervention greater.
Maya’s parents, Elise Gold and Mathew Swerdloff, found their way of coping with overwhelming tragedy by founding the Maya Gold Foundation, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is “empowering youth to access their inner wisdom and realize their dreams.” The Foundation is dedicated to helping teens feel grounded, valued and valuable, teaching their communities strategies for supporting them better and carrying forward Maya’s own life ambition to ease the plight of orphans and homeless youth in Nepal.
Committed to listening to young people express their own needs and concerns, from the get-go the organizational structure has incorporated a Youth Action Team who choose the themes for each of the Foundation’s twice-annual community programs. “We lean on them,” says Elise Gold. “There’s practically nothing we do without them at the table.”
The flashiest part of the Foundation’s activities in the years since its founding has been the annual service trip for teens to work with children at an orphanage in Nepal, which resumed in 2022 after a two-year hiatus. The COVID pandemic never stopped the organization from reaching out to local youth, parents, educators, medical personnel and first responders, however. While there was some virtual programming, the Foundation continued its live series of Teen Mental Health First Aid workshops as early as June 2020, “at the New Paltz Community Center and the Woodstock Community Center, with masks,” according to Elise.
The Maya Gold Foundation has been certified by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing to offer these trainings: a series of three two-hour sessions that “teach teens to be aware of mental health challenges and crises in themselves and to recognize them in their peers,” Elise explains. “Teens might see each other struggling and not know what to do.” The emphasis, as with any other sort of first aid, is quick intervention — to “stop the bleeding,” metaphorically speaking, while waiting for more professional help to arrive. Youth in grades 10 to 12 come out of the training “knowing how to ask the questions.” She notes that “The program is in schools now: in the New Paltz School District, Onteora, Cornwall, as well as some private schools such as the Woodstock Day School and the Darrow School.”
One year ago, the Foundation, which had previously been fueled purely by the energy of volunteers, hired a professional program consultant: Emma Murphy, a New Paltz native whose mandate is to “assist in moving the Foundation forward and bring the Teen Mental Health program to more schools,” in Murphy’s words. Interest in the trainings has spiked in the wake of the pandemic, when a cohort of young people were cut off from their peers for several years. “They’re spinning,” says Elise. “They didn’t get their whole high school experience.”
Also instrumental in rolling out new initiatives and sustaining those already established is board member Sara Espinosa, chair of the Community Programs Committee. She takes her cues from what’s on the minds of the Youth Action Team, and this year, she found them feeling a serious need for guidance on how to move into the adult world following a disrupted middle school and/or high school experience. “They want to know, what do you do once you graduate from high school? How do you transition into adulthood?” Espinosa explains. “High school is such a rite of passage. I imagine they don’t feel fully baked.”
In response, the Foundation has organized a panel discussion titled “The Launch: Real Talk about the Path Ahead – A Conversation about Life after High School.” It’s free and open to the public, and will take place from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 13 at the Denizen Theatre in the Water Street Market in New Paltz. The panelists, all in their 20s, are Thomas Bauer-Gluckmann, Isela Faburrieta, Alexa Floresta, Maddox Schaper, Nina Tucker and Stephanie Zambrano. They will share the challenges they encountered as they charted their courses post-graduation, what approaches worked for them and what didn’t. They will respond to questions suggested by the Youth Action Team such as, “What do you wish you knew then that you know now?” according to Espinosa, who will moderate. An audience question-and-answer session will wrap up the discussion, followed by an informal reception in the Theatre lobby, with light refreshments.
This community presentation is the centerpiece of several special events that the Foundation has planned for May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month. On May 22, a team of about seven teens will meet in Albany with Aileen Gunther (D-Forestburgh), chair of the New York State Assembly’s Standing Committee on Mental Health, and in Kingston with Ulster County executive Jen Metzger. The main topic of conversation, says Murphy, will be how to increase awareness among youth of the mental health resources already available to them. “The teens have some ideas about how to get the word out,” adds Elise. Also on the Youth Action Team’s docket for this month is a series of Letters to the Editor of this and other local newspapers intended to raise awareness about mental health issues.
Finally, the window is currently open for young people interested in joining the Youth Action Team to fill out an application on the Foundation website (mayagoldfoundation.org). “Now is the time we’re working on bringing in a new crop,” says Elise Gold. “They learn incredible leadership skills.”