Tricia Baker, founder of the Princeton-based Attitudes In Reverse, is bringing attention to America's mental health crisis with a traveling exhibit.
"In Their Shoes" features footwear from children and celebrities who have struggled with mental health − including some who tragically lost their battles.
The exhibit has been displayed at schools, colleges and community centers across the state. On Saturday morning, it will come to Woodland Park for a showing at Garret Mountain Plaza.
Baker hopes that shoes of children who died by suicide as well as shoes donated by celebrities like Glenn Close, Gaten Matarazzo, Jared Padalecki and Mark Wahlberg will start much needed conversations about mental health and show people facing these challenges that they are not alone.
Baker, a former marketing vice president at Merrill Lynch, started Attitudes In Reverse in 2011, two years after her son Kenny took his own life at 19 after struggling with depression and anxiety.
She started the exhibit a couple of years after that with her son’s shoes as the first pair.
Messages like “Everyone thinks I have so much to live for — except me” are attached to each set of shoes. Sometimes they are chosen by family members to represent the person they lost and sometimes they illustrate the pain their loved ones went through.
“People put a lot of thought into which shoes they want to donate. They often choose shoes that symbolize a significant part of their loved one's life. For example, we received football shoes from a young man who was a football player and soccer shoes from another who was passionate about soccer,” said Baker. “These shoes represent what they loved to do.”
The exhibit consists of 294 pairs of shoes. They represent the number of New Jersey residents ages 10 through 24 who died by suicide between 2017 and 2019, Baker said.
Looking to help other children cope with their stress, she has also started a therapy dog service for schools and has visited more than 30,000 students over the years, she estimates. (She brings dogs and counselors to all of her events in case someone comes forward needing immediate help.
"The goal is twofold. First, we want young people to know they're not alone in their thoughts. Every pair of shoes has a tag with something a young person might be struggling with, most often in silence,” Baker said. “Second, we want to educate the general population about how hard it is to live with a mental health disorder. We aim to increase understanding, empathy and kindness toward those who struggle and eliminate stigma. We want kids to know they can ask for help and others to be kind."
Baker said she will often keep the exhibit at schools for days because students who are struggling will often take a while before they come forward and ask for help.
Sept. 9: Family Support Organization of Passaic, 3 Garret Mountain Plaza, Woodland Park, 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Sept. 14: Ocean County Community College, Outdoors Campus Mall, 1 College Drive, Toms River, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Sept. 21: Summit High School (Just for students)
Sept. 26: Hudson County Community College, Journal Square Campus, 76th Street, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Oct. 4: Taste of Hope (fundraiser), VIP shoes only, Princeton Marriot, Plainsboro, 6 to 9 p.m.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 'In Their Shoes' exhibit shines spotlight on mental health crisis