Building a bridge: Hayfield volleyball coach uses tragedy to raise mental health awareness

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, September 21, 2022

HAYFIELD – Hayfield head volleyball coach Jo Kruger knows all too well what it’s like to face mental challenges, and now she’s doing what she can to watch out for others who may be struggling in the community.

Kruger and the Viking volleyball team organized a mental health awareness night during their Tuesday match against Kenyon-Wanamingo. The match united both teams and communities to discuss the importance of mental health.

The discussion is all too real for Kruger, who lost her own father to suicide last year. That pain remains to this day and now she’s dealing with the struggles of being a coach and an elementary teacher in a time when students are struggling in a post-pandemic world.

“Mental health has affected, not just my family, but this whole community over the last 10 years. I thought it was something that needed to be spoken about. It’s been a push in the school in the last couple of weeks and the kids have made some activities to get them talking about mental health. It has been a success,” Kruger said. “The pandemic was not fun for anybody. Not only did it ruin things for high school athletes, it affected elementary kids as well. I see it in my classroom this year. They’re COVID kids and they don’t have the support and education they need. It’s not just within athletes. It’s with older and younger people. Mental health matters and everything is important.”

The Hayfield volleyball team used the model of its ‘Pink Out’ fundraisers in the past, but it took things a step further. The team took the cause to the school and spread the word about looking out for each other and staying aware of the struggles of adjusting to all of the changes that have taken place over the past three years.

According to Mackenzie Mestelle, exhibit and outreach coordinator at National Alliance on Mental Illness, 44% of high school students have reported feeling of hopelessness or sadness since the pandemic.  Mestelle spoke before the match and answered questions at a booth in the lobby from anyone who wanted to talk.

Hayfield senior Sydney Risius was one of the event’s organizers as she helped introduce activities throughout the week to keep students engaged. 

“We wanted to do this for Jo and she inspired us. We also took it on ourselves to make it like a spirit week for mental health at the school. We got all of the student body involved,” Risius said. “We have some mentally hard days and we just want to let everyone know that they’re not by themselves. We have a big impact being on a team. We make everyone feel included, and even those who look like they have it all together, may not be doing so well on the inside. We’re always checking up on everyone.”

Risius and fellow senior Reese Baumann, who also helped with the event, were both on the team when Kruger lost her father last year. Since then, they’ve done everything they can to help her heal and they’ve also looked out for their peers.

“We make sure we’re always working hard, just for Jo,” Baumann said. “School’s tough and it can definitely mess with your brain. You’ve got to make sure that you’re always checking up on yourself and others. You take others under your arm and make sure they’re always welcome.”

Kruger is now expecting her first child with her husband Cole and many of her closer family members were on hand for Tuesday’s night’s match. The former Viking is determined to make a community that she loves an even better place to live.

“From day one, the girls on my team have been unbelievable. They were great when it happened, they were great in the winter and they were great this Monday morning, when they dropped flowers off at my office. They’ve been great in supporting me and so has the community,” Kruger said. “This has happened in our school a few times now in the past 25 years and it’s not something that we want and it’s something that needs to be talked about.”