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This couple knew they had to do something after seeing the pandemic’s impact on children’s mental health

<i>WTVR</i><br/>Jon and Renee Laaser founded the Ladybug Society in May of 2022
Jon and Renee Laaser founded the Ladybug Society in May of 2022

By Tracy Sears

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    RICHMOND, Virginia (WTVR) — Nearly 400 people competed this past weekend in the Body Armor 804 Open, one of the largest pickle ball tournaments the Richmond region has seen.

The event grossed nearly $58,000 and attracted participants from across the country. While there were beginners, amateurs and even professionals competing, for many, winning first place wasn’t the end game.

“What we do is fundraise through these events,” said event organizer Jon Laaser. “The bigger they get, of course, the more proceeds to give to mental health initiatives in public schools, which is our mission.”

Jon and Renee Laaser founded the Ladybug Society in May of 2022, after seeing the devastating mental health impacts of the pandemic.

“We were having dinner with one of our friends who was a school counselor and just being made aware of the issues that are going on in our schools,” Renee explained. “We didn’t know about the suicides in schools, the violence and the outbursts and the self-harm, so just being made aware of that.”

The Laasers, both with backgrounds in sports broadcasting and marketing, came up with the idea for fundraisers involving not only pickle ball tournaments, but miniature golf competitions and super bowl parties to name a few.

“We knew we wanted it to be event based and fun,” Jon said.

The foundation’s initial goal is to raise $50,000 for Hanover County Public Schools since the district has a more progressive model in combating mental health problems. After reaching their goal, the Laasers hope to spread their efforts to every school district in the Richmond region, including Henrico, Chesterfield and Richmond City schools.

Richmond School Board Chair, Stephanie Rizzi, said Tuesday’s graduation day tragedy at the Altria Theater that left two people dead, including agraduating senior, has led to a collective trauma being felt throughout the region. She said violence and division have increased significantly since the pandemic and escalated the mental health crisis.

Rizzi spent last week calling Huguenot High School families, many who said they will be forever impacted by the shootings.

“On my list of families to call, I would say 90% of those parents cried when I asked them how they were doing,” Rizzi said.

While increased state funding is crucial, Rizzi said community efforts, like that of the Ladybug Society, can make a difference in helping students who are struggling by providing needed resources.

“For us, it’s been a matter of having enough money to fund the kind of mental health we would like to provide for our students,” Rizzi said. “We’d like to have someone who is a mental health specialist in every school and that’s expensive and there’s a shortage of providers.”

The Laasers hope the Ladybug Society continues to grow with the help of volunteers and corporate partners. They say targeting adolescents in their most formative years, will create a brighter future for many students who struggle with anxiety and depression.

“The way we need to grow now is involvement,” Jon said.

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