GENEVA — When Lauren Vasquez passed away last June, her family included the following message in her obituary.
“We cannot control what happens to us in life and what we have to deal with on a daily basis; what we can control is how we treat others. When you see someone struggling, reach out your hand to them; this will be Lauren working through you.”
Lauren’s older brother, Ben, certainly could not control his sister’s longtime battle with bipolar disorder or her decision to take her life at the age of 22. But he is controlling his grief and channeling it into projects that he hopes will help others like his sister.
With the blessing and help of his parents, Anthony and Sandra, Vasquez has established a scholarship at his alma mater, Syracuse University, in Lauren’s name.
Lauren, who was close to graduating from Monroe Community College at the time of her death, was interested in attending SU for social work; her brother said she wanted to work in the mental health field with teenagers.
Vasquez, 24, is certain she would have had much to offer.
Lauren was diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in middle school and was a person who despite her illness was focused on helping others. She volunteered at Geneva’s Community Lunch program, worked at a Rochester homeless shelter and — as Vasquez learned after her death — bought a fellow MCC student a warm winter coat because he had no car and walked to campus.
The SU scholarship will start at $500 but hopefully will eventually increase to $1,000. Vasquez said it is open to incoming freshman and sophomore students “who wish to enter a field to help those in need,” preferably the mental health field, but also nursing or law enforcement. Applicants must have a minimum 3.0 grade point average and are required to write an essay explaining why they want to pursue their chosen field and how a Syracuse education will help them meet their career goal. Vasquez said donations are currently being accepted (see box on Page 1D) and the family will make a decision in May on the first award winner, with the scholarship given in the fall.
Helping college students in Lauren’s memory is not all Vasquez is doing on his sister’s behalf. He and his mother plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with Congressional representatives to discuss the challenges of mental health treatment. He noted long-term care at private facilities is generally not covered by insurance and can cost families upwards of $50,000 out of pocket.
Vasquez would also like to see mental health education have a more prominent place in the curriculum in middle and high school. As a police officer in Waterloo, he took a mental health “first aid” class that touched on strategies for dealing with on-the-job stress and how to decompress from those occupational hazards. Vasquez wonders why a similar class can’t be taught in schools.
“I see more and more youth — middle school to their early 20s — who struggle with mental health,” he said. “I feel that too many people don’t talk about it.”
His sister’s struggles and untimely death have been “eye opening, “ Vasquez said, changing him as a person and a police officer. Despite the magnitude of his family’s loss, he’s a can-do person who wants to ensure his sister’s struggle was not in vain.
“Hopefully we can make a small difference,” Vasquez said.