RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Tech fans know the name Jon Laaser. His tenure as the voice of the Hokies ended abruptly last year.
This ending was not planned — at least not by Laaser himself. However, it has allowed him to channel his efforts and energies into what he truly believes he was put on Earth to do — help those who may have some trouble helping themselves.
According to legend, a ladybug is a symbol of luck and hope. Jon and Renee Laaser are hoping to make it one of empathy and understanding as well.
The former voice of the Hokies started his Clean Mountain Air campaign in Blacksburg last fall, selling T-shirts and other items with his catchphrase as a way to raise money and awareness about mental health among college athletes.
It took off in a way the Laasers couldn't have imagined.
"We just thought people were being friendly and being kind to buy our shirts and being good friends and supporters of Jon. But then people started telling us their stories, my wife suffered from depression or I had someone in my family take their life," Renee said.
"You get into the mental health space and into being vulnerable and honest about your own stuff and the people that come into your life has just been incredible. That's where it started," Jon said.
The success had the two of them thinking more and more about how they could help ease the burden on an overworked mental health system in the country.
As many as 25% of people seeking help can wait more than three months to see a professional. For Laaser, that issue struck very close to home over the holidays when a family member was hospitalized for injuring herself due to stress.
"For two days, sat in the ER, waiting for a bed at a facility. When that happened over the holidays, we were like, we have to get off the bench and get into the game," Jon said.
So Jon and Renee founded Laaser's Ladybug Society, aimed at raising money and awareness for the problem, specifically where children are concerned. They hoped to address mental health issues at younger ages in an effort to keep them from becoming bigger problems when they become adults.
"We like to say water the roots and not the leaves. What that means is to try to get mental health help and personnel into the schools so that when a five-year-old or a seven-year-old into their teen years and they're having issues in their life and it's so omnipresent with where we are in our society that they can actually get that help right then," Jon said.
However, they can't just snap their fingers and have the help ready to go.
They are starting with smaller local events, like a pickleball tournament later this summer and more planned for later in the year.
The funds will initially go to help school programs in Hanover, but the goal is to be able to help school systems and programs across Central Virginia.
"More people are talking about it and opening up and that's great. But now we actually have to fix it and address it and come back as a community and lean on each other," Renee said.
"When somebody sees the ladybug shirt, doesn't have to be ours with anything on it, then they know there are people out there that want to have that conversation," Jon said.
Laaser stepped away from his job with the Hokies earlier this year and is now focused solely on this new project. He could be a case study in making a difficult decision that leads to a greater purpose in the future.
"People that think it was easy for me to leave, to make that decision, it's the hardest thing I've ever done," Jon said.
"It's been rejuvenating, I'd say, because every day we wake up and there's a new challenge and a new goal. We're learning more and we know that everything we're doing is for a good cause and a good reason," Renee said.
Jon's father Mark was a pioneer in the field of counseling and mental health awareness. His passing in September of 2019 began Jon's change in priorities and renewed interest in helping others find their own ladybugs.
"He did something very similar in his life around the same age where he wasn't sure if that was the right path in terms of the speaking and the writing and the books and everything that he did. Optimistically, I'm not him but I'd like to be similar," Jon said.
Jon and Renee do not have a website up and running yet but you can find information about what the two are up to on Facebook.
Their pickleball event will be on June 11 and 12 in Chesterfield and they will have more information soon about upcoming events.
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