Ashley Jadine Foundation gala celebrates a decade working to end youth suicide
Ashley Jadine Duncan

This Sunday, Sept. 25, the Ashley Jadine Foundation (AJF) will hold its 10th Anniversary Gala at The Ballroom at Tanglewood.

The AJF was founded in September of 2012 in the aftermath of the organization’s namesake, Ashley Jadine Duncan’s suicide. The death of Ashley, who was a 17-year-old high school senior, came as a shock to many who knew her. The foundation works so that no other parents and loved ones have to endure such pain and loss.

The Defender spoke with the president of the AJF, renowned scientist Dr. Patrice Yarbough, about the AJF and its upcoming event.

DEFENDER: Welcome doctor. How are you doing?

DR. PATRICE YARBOUGH: Good morning. Thanks for having me and it’s indeed the case that on Sunday, September 25, we will be celebrating our 10-year anniversary gala. And of course, the event for us is always bittersweet because we are celebrating the life of Ashley Jadine Duncan who is no longer with us. But a consequence of her death was that many of us became much more intimately aware of the rising cases of suicide. And much of what we do in our organization is to try and prevent it.

DEFENDER: Regarding that mission to prevent, what are some of the things your organization does?

YARBOUGH: In many ways we are a grassroots organization. So many of us were caught off-guard when you think about the context of that in 2012 and you think about the age of Ashley. She was 17. The age of her parents. And many of us were not on social media. I, for one, was not. And we are constantly reminded that much of prevention is about understanding what the causes are. And when it’s a space that you’re not familiar with, and your family has not been hit by it, our approach was to try and understand. And basically, it is a mental illness. So, for those of us who have been ill for one reason or another, when those illnesses are physical, we actually, first of all, simply try to understand what are the causes and then to come up with a treatment for that cause case. For example, if you break a leg, maybe you need bone repair. But with mental illness, it’s not obvious. So, a person can be experiencing mental disturbances and mental illnesses and not be aware of it, and their families could also not be aware of it.

And that was the case with Ashley. So, we try and help people understand what are the warning signs of a person who may be severely depressed. The data actually shows that there are a number of conditions that can cause suicides, but a significant cause of it is a person who may be clinically depressed. And I wanna be clear; anybody at any point in time can have some form of depression or to be depressed about an occurrence or an incident. But clinical depression is an illness. It is when the body is not able to cope with the circumstances. And then the body actually goes into a clinically depressive state. And it can get serious enough for a person to lose hope, and they can believe that there are no other outcomes. So, a part is to educate about that, and then to help people understand what the alternatives are. And the first one is seeking help. So, we engage clinical psychologists and psychiatrists to better understand the illness so that the literature that we create and that we provide for the public will be better represented.

And in the early years of the ADF, those years pre-COVID, much of what we did was our founder, Cheryl Duncan, would go out to churches, community centers and schools that were interested in having her. It really was talking about what our foundation is all about. And starting with education, creating information, making it available to the public and having the conversation. Because suicide is a condition where there is a lot of stigma that is surrounding mental illness. People don’t talk about it. Well, if you don’t talk about it, it’s very likely that it will continue to go unnoticed and it will continue to go untreated.

And our third point is that mental illness can be treated. So, it’s not something that you have to hide. You should be talking about it so that you can get treatment for. And sometimes the treatment is medication and other times the treatment is a behavior modification.

DEFENDER: How did you become involved with the Foundation?

YARBOUGH: So, for me, it is very, very personal. People who know me well know that had Ashley not died, I would probably not be occupying any of this space at all. It’s not my area of expertise. I am a virologist by training, though retired now. Ashley’s older brother, Anthony Duncan, has been a close and a dear friend of my son since we returned to Houston in the year 2000. So, the time of Ashley’s death, the Duncans and the Yarboughs had been close friends for about 11 years. So, Cheryl and I were friends. And when a crisis occurs, and you have friends, friends step up, and they help in whatever way that they can. Ashley died in January 2012, and nine months later, Cheryl, my dear girlfriend, decided that she couldn’t bring her daughter back, but she didn’t to have to go through the pain of not knowing, not being aware, like she did. So, her goal was to create a grassroots organization that would be the foundation of awareness, where people could learn about it. And that’s how I got involved. She asked me to be president. I’ve proudly been president since the inception of our organization. We were established in September of 2012.

DEFENDER: What’s the goal of this 10th anniversary gala?

YARBOUGH: Let me, first of all, say that every year for about five years previous to COVID, we would do a health fair. Our approach to educating the public had to do with not only going out to where the young people are—young people are in school, they’re in the homes, they’re in churches; so our approach was to talk to those [young] people [where they were]—but we also did organized events. And for several years we did organize walks. Large walks. And the money that we raised from those walks was our primary source of income. And we’ve used that money for creating informational pamphlets, packets cards, bracelets, something that we can put into the hands of the people that we are speaking to. Something that has a website on it. Ashley’s favorite colors were pink and purple. That is the origin of the colors for our organization, pink and purple. We had a five-year gala in 2017 and the public was very kind to us. They were responsive to the fact that we were having this gala to first of all honor the life of Ashley, but second of all, to actually celebrate what her life was all about; how important it was, even though she’s no longer with us. And to use her life, the way it ended, to be able to shed some light on a condition that is frankly rising in communities all over the world.

We, at that point, established a AJF Scholarship Foundation. And so the gala, as well as all of the events that we have had over the past 10 years now, are to raise funds for scholarships. And every year we have increased the number of scholarships. This past year, we awarded six scholarships to six high school graduating students. The basis of the scholarship is for a student to be able to communicate in a written form, a challenge, some sort of challenge that they have dealt with [or] are dealing with, and to provide us information as to how that challenge has impacted them. We have a scholarship review committee. We review [the submissions] and we basically work to help our students become the very best that they can be. That is a big part of what our gala is about.

The gala is two parts. It’s to raise money for our scholarships. It is to celebrate. We start off by remembering and celebrating Ashley. And we use what happened with us who were frankly, caught off guard with this condition, caught off guard with the incidents, as a way to sustain hope. This year, our tagline is “Sustaining Hope and Preserving Ashley’s Light.” The reason why we chose that is because without hope people fall into despair. And in the deepest part of despair, people may want to end their life. We want to remind people that we can prevent suicides through hope and through healing.

We have a wonderful lineup this year. Five years ago, our mistress of ceremonies was this Mia Gradney. And we are very blessed this year that Mia Gradney, along with Len Cannon, are going to be co-hosting our event. Our event is being held at the Ballroom at Tanglewood. We have contracted with the Conrad O. Johnson Jazz Ensemble. We’ll reach out to those students in every way that we can. We sought out them specifically, first of all, because we are individually impressed with the talent of this group. But [also], we want the young people to know that what we do is for them. It’s not that suicide only occurs in young people, because it does not. It occurs in adults too. But Ashley was 17.

So, our targets are the youth, high schoolers and college students. So, we are going to have a great program. Our honorary chairs this year is Deanna Breaux-Gathe and Dr. Joe Gathe Jr. And we are looking forward to an awesome event. We are a grassroots group. We’ve got 24 members. Our gala co-chairs this year, Sylvia Johnson and Deborah Jean, have given a lot of their time and their talents and have organized an amazing program. So, we’re looking forward to celebrating.

DEFENDER: What are you most proud of regarding the foundation’s work over the past 10 years?

YARBOUGH: The two are connected, so I’m going to give you two things. First of all, we are extremely proud that the Houston community supports our events, our work, our galas, where those dollars then allow us to have the scholarships, scholarships that we give to first-year [college] students so that we can help them get off to a good start. And part of our fundraising this year is actually, we want to keep pace with the rising cost of colleges. So, our intention starting next year is to increase our scholarships by 25%.

The second one, which really isn’t second, because it occurred before we were able to do the scholarships, is we’re very proud that every time, and I genuinely mean this, every time we have done an event, whether it is a walk, whether it is going out to a school, whether it is a health fair, we meet people who want to talk about suicide, and they talk about suicide prevention. I personally have never been at an AJF event where I did not feel that the information that we provided, or at least one conversation that we started, didn’t help somebody understand that they have the potential to actually help save a life. And for that, we are very proud.

DEFENDER: What is the one thing you want people to know about youth suicide?

YARBOUGH: Suicides in our youth are escalating. And the one thing I want people to understand is we must continue to pour resources into preventing it. The second thing is that mental illness is treatable, which means that suicides can be prevented. So, we reach out to people to actually ask them to help us do the work that we want to do for the greater community.

DEFENDER: How can people access the information the foundation produces or secure a foundation representative for speaking engagements?

YARBOUGH: To get information about our foundation, go straight to our website www.AshleyJadineFoundation.org. On our website, we have information about Ashley, about our origins, about all of the events that we’ve done over the past five years, and video recordings of events that we have done. There’s a lot of background information about our organization. And with respect to contacting, contact goes directly through our founder Cheryl Duncan (713-320-8815). You can speak directly with her. She never turns down a call. And she has a strong group of men and women who are part of the organization. We’re an all-volunteer organization. We do have a board of directors. The chair of that board of directors, Dr. Renata Nero, who is a clinical psychologist, gives us terrific guidance on how to do the work that we want to do in a proper way, but also in a setting that will be encouraging and inviting to those that may be suffering from mental illnesses, as well as those who are not. But those who want to understand about people who are. Because it really does take a village to save a live.

MORE ON THE AJF GALA

Tens of thousands of people die by suicide every year and, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 1 million people attempt suicide. The AJF will celebrate the 10 years of work the Foundation has done and raise funds for youth scholarships.

Special guests are KHOU 11 News anchors Mia Gradney (Mistress of Ceremonies) and Len Cannon (Co-Host), as well as AJF Gala co-chairs Deborah Jean and Sylvia Johnson. Honorary co-Chairs are Dr. Joseph Gathe and Deanna Breaux-Gathe, who will also give the keynote address. Additionally, attendees will hear a word from another guest speaker, Dr. Rahn K. Bailey.

Attire is a black tie optional for the gala. The Conrad O. Johnson Regional Youth Jazz Ensemble will perform during the cocktail hour starting at 4p.m. Auction bidding opens at 4:30p.m. Dinner seating begins at 5:15p.m.

To purchase tickets or a sponsorship, visit www.AshleyJadineFoundation.org. The Ashley Jadine Foundation is a 501c(3) public charity, EIN 80-0915338, dedicated to the memory of Ashley Jadine Duncan.