MONTVILLE, NJ – When Montville resident Veronica Tullo started participating in pageants three years ago, she didn’t know much about teen suicide or depression. But when a friend developed problems, it became her passion.

Now 15, the Montville Township High School sophomore has founded HEART, Help Educate At Risk Teens, with her mother Lucy Tullo. HEART is an organization aimed at raising awareness of, and raising money for, organizations that educate the public about teen suicide and depression.

On Oct. 23, the pair hosted a HEART fundraiser, a musical performance and silent auction event, at Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, with proceeds to go to the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS). About $2,000 was raised, Lucy said.

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“It’s a dream come true to raise money for such a great cause,” Veronica told attendees.

Proceeds from the event will go towards bringing a youth wellness summit to Morris County because it has the highest teenage suicide rate in the state, Tullo said.  

“I’m hoping that we can change that,” she said. “When I was in seventh grade, I was introduced to the realities of teen suicide and depression when my best friend was self-harming and attempted suicide several times. I knew there was something I had to do to stop this.”

Tullo said she educated herself on the topic by contacting the SPTS and Towaco resident Wendy Sefcik, who lost her son to suicide and is now a teen suicide and mental health advocate (read about her recent appearance here).

“I’m hoping to educate everyone – you, my peers, everyone in Morris County – about this topic,” Veronica said. “I’m hoping that with education, comes awareness, lowering the rate and saving teens. I believe that education is key. I’ve learned the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide, which could save lives, and others can do that as well.”

Brian Falduto, who appeared in the movie “School of Rock,” sang at the event, saying he was happy to perform but wished he wasn’t affected by the topic.

“I lost one of my best friends to suicide my senior year of college,” Falduto told the audience. His group “Brian Falduto and Friends” sang the Beyoncé song “Halo” in Justin Stevens’ memory, and Falduto said he and his group were wearing yellow roses because yellow was his friend’s favorite color.

Sefcik told the audience she supported events that raise awareness of the importance of mental health and shed a light on suicide risk. Simply completing small tasks are a struggle and take a lot of courage for someone struggling with depression and anxiety, Sefcik said.

“While depression is common, thankfully most people who battle depression do not die by suicide," she said. “On the flip side, more than 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition like depression at the time of their death.”

“People need to talk about it, recognize the signs, and encourage teens to reach out for help, and organizations like HEART are giving a voice to so many people who, for years, have had to struggle silently,” she said. “By educating at-risk teens, we’re going to save lives.”

Dawn Doherty, the Executive Director of SPTS, said, “It’s amazing to get people together in the same room together with the initiative to save teens.”

Freehold-based SPTS was started in 2005 by two fathers who lost children to suicide, she said. At that point in time, teens were not hosting fundraisers, raising awareness, and saying “It’s OK not to be OK,” she said.

SPTS has been working with teachers to educate them on the warning signs of suicide and with parents to teach them to be advocates for their teens, and to know their local resources, she said.

Doherty said SPTS has conducted the one-day youth wellness summit in other counties and it is geared towards sophomores, juniors and teachers. It deals with topics such as self esteem, toxic relationships, time and financial management, concerns about getting into college, and other topics that weigh on teens, she said.

Broadway actor and singer James Ignacio performed the song “For Forever,” from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” which centers on teen suicide. The Mayo Performing Arts Center Company also performed “You’ll Be Found,” a song from the musical.

Towaco resident Zach Matari performed at the fundraiser, and he talked about how he missed TJ Sefcik, with whom he went to school.

“Make sure you pay attention to everyone,” he told the audience. “Even if someone is not showing any signs [of depression], just being nice to someone and acknowledging them can make all the difference.”

Veronica, who was crowned International United Miss Junior Teen 2017 in August, was profiled in TAPinto Montville here.

The Tullos would like to thank Mayo PAC, Stack Happy Sweets of Montville, Monster Sushi, Wegmans, Michael Chen Photography, Designs by Diane, Tommy Conch Designs and Willing Beauty Skincare.

Some teen resources in New Jersey include:

Crisis Text Line A free, 24/7 text line for people in crisis. Text HOME to 741741

2nd Floor provides a 24-hour-youth hotline 888-222-2228 – call or text.