By John McNeilly
Teens-turned-activists have been in the news a lot lately.
The student survivors of the most recent mass school shooting have captured headlines and stimulated a national debate. And thousands more are making themselves heard in the media, the streets of towns and cities, at state houses, and in Congress. Loudoun teens are no different, seeking to empower peers and improve their communities.
Take 17-year-old Varun Chharia as an example.
A senior at Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Chharia embarked five months ago on an ambitious project that would challenge the most seasoned events-planning professional. He set out to organize Rock to Live, a free and public concert focused on raising awareness of and preventing teen suicide. It will feature speakers sharing their stories of hope and music from DC-based Sub-Radio, Tuscarora High School band Never Born to Follow, Loudoun Music Instruction’s The Immortals and Ashburn teen Willy Salzmann. The event will also feature cast members from “A Will to Survive,” the rock opera named after William Robinson, a Loudoun Valley student who lost his life to suicide. Through the support of sponsors, the concert will serve as a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the locally based suicide prevention nonprofit the Ryan Bartel Foundation.
Rock to Live will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, April 8, at the Bush Tabernacle, 250 Nursery Ave., in Purcellville.
Since September, Chharia has been organizing the concert as his capstone project to obtain the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest level a Boy Scout can achieve. It’s an exceptionally rigorous process. According to the Boy Scouts of America, only 4 percent of all Scouts are nationally awarded the honor each year.
Chharia said the idea initially came to him in eighth grade, after he’d heard about kids close to his age choosing to end their lives. As a senior in high school, with the problem only intensifying locally, the issue remained on his mind as he sat down with Chris Bledsoe, a Purcellville councilman who regularly meets with young people interested in organizing town-related projects.
He asked Bledsoe what was being done about the issue, and after a wide-ranging conversation, both realized the benefit of holding a community-wide, teen-centric public event that would not only raise awareness of and provide critical resources for teen suicide prevention, but also raise money for area charities that provide resources to struggling teens.
Chharia got to work. He conducted surveys, crunched data, talked to classmates and mental health professionals, and concluded that stress, particularly obsessively overthinking matters, was a major source of teenage anxiety and depression, both triggers for suicidal thoughts. His friends and classmates also told him that activities such as playing sports, painting, and especially listening to and playing music, were important coping outlets. He figured an event that combined local music with issue-oriented guest speakers in a fun environment would offer a strong inducement for peers to come together.
“Varun organized the entire event. He really thought it through,” Bledsoe said. “He figured out local music is popular with peers, talked to groups, gathered all the planning do’s and don’ts, and then just did it. He figured out all the financial elements, lined up the music, sponsors—everything. It’s a very impressive undertaking.”
Suzie Bartel agrees.
Bartel is the founder of the Ryan Bartel Foundation, which she launched in 2014 after her son took his own life during his senior year at Woodgrove High School. The charity has since launched well-regarded programs in schools to help prevent teen suicide.
“What Varun has done is so admirable,” Bartel said. “He’s taken a major initiative, one that’s extremely complicated, and single-handedly made it his own. Research has shown that the more young people talk about suicide, the more likely they are to seek help. He’s taken empowerment to an entirely different level.”
Loudoun County has seen a rise in suicides among young people in recent years. Nationally, suicides are the third leading cause of death among children between the ages of 10 and 14, and the second leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 34, according to National Institutes of Health.
Lauren Brocious, 19, who will speak at Rock to Live, is intimately familiar with the issue.
After making an anti-bullying video in high school that went viral and garnered significant national media attention, the Winchester native and graduate of Millbrook High School received a tidal wave of online harassment but also had her car tires slashed, her house egged, and even death threats. Brocious also discovered one of her friends had set up an anonymous webpage encouraging others to make disparaging, untrue comments about her. She was devastated.
It was a dark period, she says, one that ultimately led her to try to end her life. After spending the second half of her senior year recovering, she regained her passion and resolve to combat bullying and help prevent teen suicide. She even started her own nonprofit, The #YouDefineYou Project.
Now an unceasingly positive, upbeat sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University (studying communications and psychology), Brocious travels around the state speaking to students, parents, teachers and administrators, presenting at national conferences, and offering advice, resources, and sometimes, just an empathetic ear, to anyone who asks.
“I was determined to use my experience to help everyone I could,” she said. “When I talk about it publicly, I speak with zero filters, so others can feel connected and not embarrassed to have the same feelings,” she said. “I try to empower them to seek help and to know there are people, lots of them, who are going through the same thing.”
Brocious says she speaks at events like Rock to Live because it’s important for young people and their peers to mingle, hear and share stories, and to be exposed to resources they might not otherwise learn of.
Chharia, who also held down a job, ran track, and applied to college during the planning for Rock to Live, said he’s thrilled to be so close to the actual event. After so much time and energy, he’s excited, if nervous, to finally see it all come together.
“When Rock to Live is over, a lot of weight will be off my shoulders. I’ll know I’ve done something meaningful for my community and for the cause of preventing teen suicide,” he said, sounding tired, but elated. “A year from now, I think I’ll be proud of it. It will all be worth it.”