‘I can’t think of a better event to show that the community cares about them’: Hilinski’s Hope speaks to Cullman County students

Mark Hilinski of Hilinski’s Hope Foundation speaks to over 1,700 Cullman County Students at Temple Baptist Church Tuesday. (Nick Griffin/The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Over 1,700 Cullman County students made their way to Temple Baptist Church Tuesday for a special presentation on mental health from Hilinski’s Hope Foundation. Hilinski’s Hope Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to promote awareness and education of mental health and wellness for student athletes. The Foundation was founded by Mark and Kym Hilinski to honor the life of their son Tyler, who died by suicide in 2018. After a phenomenal high school career, Tyler earned an athletic scholarship to play quarterback at Washington State University and threw for over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games as a Cougar.

Hilinski’s Hope helps colleges and universities save lives, eliminate stigma, and scale mental wellness programs for student-athletes. The foundation does this by sharing Tyler’s story, connecting students with mental health resources, and assisting universities to institutionalize best practices. The Foundation’s mission is to educate, advocate, and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, while funding programs that provide student-athletes with the tools and resources that support their mental health and wellness.

In addition to a speech on the dangers of social media from Cullman County Sheriffs Office Sergeant Jeff Lawson, the Hilinski’s gave one of their signature “Tyler Talks” for the students as well, sharing their story in hopes of convincing anyone that is struggling to seek the help they need. Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette was excited to see the event come together Tuesday and hopes it inspires anyone who needs help to speak up.

“Karen Pinion has been planning a mental health expo for over a year now and she put a lot of time and effort into it and then we were actually connected with the Hilinski’s through Senator (Garlan) Gudger. We had them come and speak at a principal’s meeting and then we wanted them to speak at every school but they said we had so many schools that it may not be possible so Karen (Pinion) changed the expo a little bit and invited them here so we can bring a bunch of kids to them,” Barnette said. “We’re going to have over 1,700 people here today and we’re super excited about it. More than anything that I want to get out there today is that we love our students, and we care about them. Today is all about showing how much we love them and during the program today the Hilinski’s will speak and share their story. The biggest thing is, if you’re having some of the struggles that their son had, reach out and tell somebody. We’re super excited and today is going to be a wonderful day.”

Barnette continued,

“The thing about their story is that they can speak from firsthand experience. We know that mental health challenges are on the rise and we know that high school kids are really good at covering those up,” Barnette said. “If nothing else, we just want to express to them and to our families that if they’re struggling, get help. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Reach out and tell us so we can get you the support you need to make things better.”

Cullman County Schools Mental Health Services Coordinator Karen Pinion has been planning a mental health expo for some time but when she crossed paths with the Hilinski’s, she knew it would be worth it to change the plan and have them involved.

“At the beginning of the school year we start planning for how we can improve academics, but we also talk about how we can help kids both socially and emotionally. We know that kids come from many different backgrounds and our job is to support them in all areas and while we focus a lot on academics we also focus on our students’ mental wellbeing and their overall success as adults. My path was so fortunate to meet up with the Hilinskis. We had a different event planned before our paths crossed and from that point on our social workers, some of our school counselors and some of our central office people completely flipped what we had planned,” Pinion said. “Andrew Hepinstall here at Temple Baptist has been instrumental in the planning. We flipped our plan and recreated this for today with 1,700 people. We have people from other school districts visiting hoping to replicate this and people from the state department as well. I also want to thank all of our incredible sponsors and vendors and the people that helped put this on because without them and their support we could not have done this.”

Mark and Kym Hilinski both talked about the impact that losing Tyler has had on them over the years. They’re excited to see the community rally around this cause and sharing Tyler’s story has been a way for them to keep his memory alive and a way for them to help others who may be struggling with the same things.

“When you start seeing what it takes to put these together and you’ve got local police here just helping with traffic, you’ve got people from different schools, people from the state and you’ve got educators and administrators alike here and when one event can pull all these people together like that, we just couldn’t be more happy to be a part of it,” Mark said. “So, for us that’s a big reach for awareness and then to see all of us interacting I think is great for the kids to know that it’s not just a saying, it’s a way of life. We can talk about these things, we don’t have to do it all the time, but we don’t have to be afraid to ask for help.”

“It’s overwhelming. An event like this and how they pulled all these people together to make something like this happen gives us an overwhelming feeling of gratitude,” Kym said. “We’re so thankful for the people that are here today, for the people that are going to hear Tyler’s story and hear about our journey. It’s sure to be an emotional day as well but I tell people all the time, every day is emotional without Tyler, and I would much rather be sharing his story and touching lives than running away and not trying to help.”

“When (Tyler’s) not here and he didn’t tell anyone he’s struggling and didn’t leave a note saying ‘Hey Mom I had to go’, you are left not just missing him, but even his coach, Coach (Mike) Leach who is no longer with us God bless him, swore that of the 130 guys on the roster he was the least likely guy to do this,” Mark said. “So, when we share all of that I think it helps kids normalize it. We don’t want your business, we’re not asking for all the details but if you’re not asking for help because you’re worried about what your buddies might say or what your coach might think or your parents won’t think you’re tough enough or any of that stuff, we want to encourage you to rethink that. You wouldn’t try to beat cancer on your own. You wouldn’t do your own ACL surgery. So, if your mental health or your brain chemistry changes and you don’t know why and you catch that early, there is zero wrong with asking for help. We want to normalize that part of it, and I can’t think of a better event to show that the community cares about them.”

“You see the superintendents here and the coaches and the teachers and the counselors and you have to know those kids are thinking, ‘Wow, they really do care about me, not just the straight A student me, or the football player me or the drummer in the band me, they care about me in mind, body and soul’,” Kym said. “That’s a powerful message and I’m just grateful that Cullman County Schools has brough this to their students today, its special.”

You can learn more about Hilinski’s Hope Foundation or support their cause by visiting Hilinski’s Hope (hilinskishope.org)

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