Lunch with Mimi: Marisa Vicere
Marisa Vicere founded and became president of the Jana Marie Foundation in 2012 after losing her sister, Jana Vicere, to suicide in 2011. The foundation is committed to helping young people navigate through the tough transitional teen years as well as educating parents and community members about mental and emotional health.
The Jana Marie Foundation has implemented numerous programs, including the Straight Talk for People Who Care About Kids seminar series, Candid Conversations video series, Wellness Forums For Young Women, and the Stompers Project — a major community project that is using art to bring people together and open up discussions concerning mental and emotional health. In February, the foundation began its latest project, Mokita Dialogues, which are held the fourth Thursday of every month at New Leaf Initiative in the State College Municipal Building. A different topic is discussed each month, and the event is open to the community. The April dialogue is April 27 and deals with food security.
Born and raised in State College, Marisa Vicere left the area to attend Susquehanna University Sigmund Weis School of Business and graduated cum laude in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science degree in global management and marketing. In 2015, she graduated from Penn State University’s Smeal College of Business with an MBA. She currently lives in State College with her 21-month old son, Reggie.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Vicere at the Deli Restaurant in State College to discuss what programs are available to the community through the Jana Marie Foundation and how the organization works with mental-health professionals in the area to educate parents and empower young people to overcome adversity.
Mimi: I’m honored to have the opportunity to update our readers about some of the remarkable things you’ve been able to accomplish because your heart wanted to do it.
Marisa: Thank you very much. I’m honored to be here with you.
Mimi: Now I must make a confession, and I’m a little teary-eyed. I, too, lost a sister to suicide, but I’ve not done anything in my volunteer life in that regard, and here you’re making a career out of it. Explain just a bit what made you do it.
Marisa: I lost my sister a little over five years ago to suicide. After she passed, there were just a lot of “what if” questions and wondering what else I could have done to help her or provide her with additional support. I wanted to find a way to remember Jana. I also wanted to let other families know that they are not alone and that there are resources available if they, or someone they know, are struggling.
Mimi: What a rewarding thing that has got to be for you in a short period of time.
Marisa: It is. Every day is different and has moments were I can tell that Jana is shining down on us. We try to keep our programs in line with her interests, using art, creative expression, and music to educate about mental health and to provide opportunities for personal growth.
Mimi: Give us a couple examples for our readers to let them know what you’ve done here or see in the community.
Marisa: One of the programs we run is the Stompers Project by Jana Marie Foundation which started in 2015. We use recycled sneakers that have been deconstructed and painted by community members to create 6-feet, 4-inch sculptures of people, symbolizing stomping out the stigma that surrounds mental and emotion health.
Mimi: Now was that your idea?
Marisa: It was. When I was little, I visited Switzerland with my family and there was an ecoartist, HA Schult, that had an exhibit in the mountains. We hiked about two miles to find his work, hundreds of soldier-like statues created out of scrap metal and recyclable materials. When contemplating our next project, that image kept popping up in my mind. I thought it would be really powerful to create something similar out of sneakers, tying in a unique curriculum to educate about mental wellness and providing opportunities for community members to share parts of their stories.
Mimi: What are the tangible results? Do you have any stories to measure a difference that you’ve made?
Marisa: Jana Marie Foundation and our community partners have made 13 stompers to date. One of my favorite stories is from Park Forest Middle School. We created a curriculum around healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety. The participants, over 100 students, participated in activities to help identify sources of stress, practiced mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and engaged in conversations about what stress feels like. The last part of the project was naming the newly created sculpture — they decided it should be “Take Flight” because what they learned was how to lessen that burden so they could fly, but the sneakers reminded them to stay grounded, remember where they came from, and to always give back to the community and support one another.
Mimi: And those were in fifth and sixth grade?
Marisa: Sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.
Marisa: The insight we can gain from students when we engage them through art projects and conversations is incredible. Jana Marie Foundation provides a safe space to allow students to listen, share, and connect. That’s what I love most, creating that space.
Mimi: Do you think your programs like this have a residual impact on kids’ realizing how it is better to be nice to kids than not nice?
Marisa: I hope so. With the YMCA of Centre County, we focused on the importance of community and helping one another. During our time with the Delta Program in 2016, we talked about finding acceptance with ourselves and with others. We often search for common ground during our sessions to help students realize that we are all in this together and are all connected in some sort of way.
Mimi: How do you spread this into something even larger?
Marisa: In 2016, Jana Marie Foundation launched a new program: Mind Matters, the power of mindfulness, hardiness, and positive mindset. I developed the course with the support of Dr. Leo Flangan from the Center for Resilience in New York and Dr. Peter Montminy from a Mindful Village in State College. We received initial grants through Mount Nittany Health and Centre PACT to develop a course and have secured additional funding to help us expand the reach.
Mimi: What is Centre PACT?
Marisa: It’s through Centre Foundation. They have youth that identify an issue facing their peers, look into organizations that can help address that issue, and provide grant funding to programs that they deem to be effective solutions. The grant from Centre PACT was around $1,500. We were able to develop the two-hour course and pilot the program in Centre County with the initial funding we received. We secured additional funding from the Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention in Pennsylvania Schools and Colleges Initiative, so we have now made the course available to schools across the state of Pennsylvania.
Mimi: Really? What size grant did they give you?
Marisa: It’s a three-year grant of $10,000 a year.
Mimi: Is a lot of mental health, particularly among young people, linked to the drug scene?
Marisa: It can be. In the case of my sister, when she was really going through tough times, she would start to self-medicate through prescription drugs and street drugs to try to cope with what was going on inside of her. I think that is often the case. There often are co-occurrences between mental health and addiction.
Mimi: Then recovery becomes increasingly difficult.
Marisa: Very much so.
Mimi: So this resilience course, who is it designed to help?
Marisa: The course is designed for middle and high school students and teaches them practical tools and techniques to help them build resilience. We all face adversity in life, so by learning these techniques, it helps students overcome challenges and thrive while doing so.
Mimi: Your background in marketing has been a great help to you in opening doors that most people might be afraid to knock on. You seem pretty laid back to be a person demonstrating the initiative that it takes to undertake what you’ve decided to do. Love must be a part of it.
Marisa: Love is a big part of it. It’s what drives me — the love and the passion for what we do.
Mimi: And who you lost.
Marisa: And who I lost and who I can help. It is a really big driving force.
Mimi: What is your annual budget? I hope that we can raise you some money as a result of this time.
Marisa: Our budget is about $120,000.
Mimi: Well the numbers you’ve mentioned so far don’t add up to that. Is the rest given in miscellaneous contributions?
Marisa: Yes. Community support makes a big difference. Whether it’s through a financial contribution or the gift of time by volunteering — it is all vital to our success. We are so grateful that the community has been so supportive over the past five years, and we look forward to continued growth.
Mimi: You’re essentially in the life-saving business. How closely do you work with the mental-health professionals that are in our community?
Marisa: We work very closely. Jana Marie Foundation believes in the power of collaboration and the benefits it brings to the community. We work with the Centre County Mental Health office, Tides, Skills of Central PA, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Women’s Adventure Club of Centre County, and others. That’s one of the great things about Centre County, there are a lot of great resources here, and we all really care about making as big of an impact as we can. Mount Nittany Health is another amazing partner of ours. Their health-needs assessment shows that mental health is still one of the top priorities in this community, as well.
Mimi: I can’t help but sit here and be so very impressed with what you’ve accomplished so far. I’ve avoided revealing to my readers that you also have a young son. Tell me how to you keep up with it all.
Marisa: Every day is a new day, full of new adventure. It’s so fun and energizing!
Mimi: Many people spend a lifetime trying to figure out what they’d really like to do. I get the impression that you started your real career after you stopped working for profit and followed your dream.
Marisa: I believe I have. Life takes you on unexpected twists and turns, sometimes good, sometimes hard. While the circumstances were difficult, I believe I was presented an opportunity to pursue many of my passions in a new way. For this I am grateful.
Mimi: I do believe you’re going to make a measurable difference. Good luck every step of the way.
Marisa: Thank you very much, and thanks for taking time to meet with me today!
For more information about the Jana Marie Foundation, visit janamariefoundation.org.