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Palmer Ridge High School varsity football team coach Tom Pulford talks to his team during a practice Tuesday in Monument. The Bears host league rival Discovery Canyon on Friday night at Don Breese Stadium.

In 2017, when the Pikes Peak region was in the midst of a heightened number of teen suicides, Tom Pulford took a step back and looked at the state of mental health in the Pikes Peak region.

“I said to myself, ‘Who is fixing this?',” Pulford said.

According to a study released in January by Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman death by suicide rates doubled from 2015-17 among those 18 and under in El Paso County.

According to the study, suicide deaths in the 10-18 age group jumped from 24 in 2012-2014 to 48 in 2015-2017.

Thus began Take Charge.

Pulford formed the nonprofit organization in hopes of helping teens and parents work through increased societal pressures and take control of their mental wellness.

Thursday the community has an opportunity to hear from Pulford and others as "Take Charge" will host an event at Palmer Ridge High School. The event is open to students and parents with a local star-studded lineup of speakers.

Former Palmer Ridge quarterback Ty Evans, who is in Colorado Springs on spring break from N.C. State, is scheduled to speak to students. CSU-Pueblo defensive coordinator Donnell Leomiti, quarterback coach Tim Jenkins of Jenkins Elite, Mike Donahue of Value Up and Pulford are scheduled to speak. Cody Qualls, the lead singer of Face Vocal Band will also perform.

Doors open at 5:30 with the free Chick-Fil-A on a first-come-first-serve basis. The program will kick off at 6:15. The event was originally scheduled for Wednesday but was moved to Thursday due to the weather. 

Pulford encourages both students 10 and up to attend and their parents, with speakers designed for both groups.

Jenkins, who specializes in skill training and college recruitment for football players across Colorado, will speak about making and meeting goals, and work ethic. Pulford said he will be speaking to parents, while Evans, who will likely speak on the same topic from a student-athlete perspective, will speak to students. Leomiti, a cancer survivor, will speak on overcoming adversity, while Donahue will focus on valuing human beings, according to Pulford.

Pulford, who has coached the Palmer Ridge football team to back-to-back 3A state championships, expects to speak about the effects of social media and the importance of executive function. In short, Pulford explains executive function as your ability to make a decision and carry it out boldly.

“I tell kids in class all the time, I am focused on the next 60 minutes of your life, and making it the best 60 minutes at least of your day, if not your life,” Pulford said. “This is what you’re in control of so let’s focus on that.”

Pulford said some of his personal experience with manic depression helped motivate him to help others, especially those diagnosed Bipolar Type 2.

Pulford said he hopes to one day have a Take Charge app, where students can reach out and eventually meet with local doctors on a pro-bono basis.

But in the meantime, Pulford is aiming to change the culture in Colorado Springs, starting with the Palmer Ridge football team.

Growing up in small-town Minnesota, Pulford idolized the high school athletes in his town, but doesn’t see the same culture in the Monument area. Pulford believes that children all reach a certain age where voices outside the home can have a greater impact on behavior and mental health. If children are given role models, such as a well-rounded high school athlete, they will grow up to idolize and replicate the behavior of those athletes.

Enter Charlie Deeds. Deeds is a football and baseball player for Palmer Ridge and Pulford’s teaching assistant, who volunteers in Ali Pulford’s third-grade classroom at Kilmer Elementary.

“I need stuff graded, I need stuff inventoried, but here’s what I need more than the air I breathe ... I need Charlie Deeds to build a relationship with a kid at Kilmer,” Pulford said. “If we don’t build that web, we continue to talk about the things that we should've done in the midst of high-percentage of teenage suicides, wondering what we should have been spending our time on.”

Pulford hopes Deeds is the first of many athletes to make an impact on the younger generation — step one to building the web of support throughout the community. 

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