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Serra quarterback raises awareness about teen suicide

San Jose Mercury News - 9/28/2017

Sept. 28--SAN MATEO -- On game days, Luke Bottari is the starting quarterback for one of the Bay Area's top high school football programs. During the week, he juggles classes, practice and homework.

In between, the 16-year-old Serra junior is publicly tackling a topic that has tugged deeply at his heart but is not easy to discuss:

Teen suicide.

Bottari lost someone close to him last spring, a former girlfriend who took her own life.

Since then, he has made it a mission to raise awareness about one of the leading causes of death among teenagers.

Bottari recently started a nonprofit foundation called Play4Prevention, which aims to educate teens and parents about mental health and provide avenues for those who need help.

"It's an everyday thing," Bottari said. "It's become a huge part of my life."

The founder isn't going at it alone. His mother, Natasha, and coaches, teammates, teachers and administrators at Serra, an all-boys Catholic school in San Mateo, are on board with the young man whose name seems to brighten a room when mentioned.

"He has a maturity that is beyond most 16-year-old boys," said Antonia Ehlers, Serra's director of media and public relations.

The maturity was put to a test in April when Bottari learned that his friend had died.

"Having someone very dear to me take her life at such a young age had a huge impact on me," he wrote on his foundation's website. "Many of us would say we knew her so well, but that wasn't enough to keep her smiling personality with us."

Bottari, who plans to study business in college, has put a lot of thought into every detail about the foundation. Over the summer, he met with attorneys and his late friend's family, whom Bottari and his mother said are supportive, put together a foundation team and started a website, play4p.org.

Patrick Walsh, Serra's longtime football coach and Play4Prevention team member, is not surprised that his quarterback turned the idea to honor a friend into a functioning operation.

"He's not the first kid who had an idea on how he wants to change things or make a difference," Walsh said. "A lot of those times the kids expect an adult to take it over. They don't really do the leg work to make it happen. What's different about this is he is very, very passionate about this message and what he's trying to do to help people. He's done all the work.

"I am so proud of him for the effort that he has put into this. It's unbelievable. We've had conversations about how maybe there's just one meaningful conversation that saves just one life from this. Maybe there's 50. I don't know. Because of his effort and enthusiasm and energy, now everybody is behind him, doing what they can to assist him and spread this message that people are hurting out there and people need help. There's a big world, and none of us can get through this by ourselves."

Bottari's goal is to spread the word about Play4Prevention to other schools, letting teens know that it's OK to discuss a subject that so often remains internalized.

Next week, in partnership with Next Level, a nonprofit youth sports organization founded by Walsh, Bottari's foundation will sponsor an awareness campaign.

Serra's varsity and junior varsity football teams will wear Play4Prevention socks when they play at home Oct. 6 against Archbishop Mitty.

"We're reaching out to other schools on the Peninsula and around the Bay Area to participate in that event." Bottari said.

Though created to assist others, the foundation has also helped its founding member heal from an unexpected loss.

"I think we all cope in different ways, just in general as people," Bottari said. "I think starting this has helped me cope with that and deal with it. Put my feelings down and ideas. I feel like I am blessed to have a lot of people there for me, checking up, a lot of people here at Serra, a lot of friends everywhere at school. I am blessed for that."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among girls ages 15-19 doubled from 2007 to 2015. In that same time period, the suicide rate among boys increased by 30 percent.

Suicide also is the second-leading cause of death among those ages 15-24.

"I knew it was a big thing, but I didn't realize it was that big," Bottari said.

Bottari initially planned to organize just a weekend campaign to honor his friend, but the idea mushroomed into something much larger and has required outside assistance.

"I would say our biggest challenges are where to draw the line in our lack of expertise," said Natasha Bottari, who has helped her son along the way. "People have really become interested in this, which is fantastic. But there is a very fine line between saying we've got this foundation, which helps to raise awareness, but please know we also need to partner with other organizations like SafeSpace, with psychologists and with other people in the field because we are not experts at this.

"This is just a teenage kid trying to bring awareness through the avenue he has to do so. But we really need to partner with experts to deliver a broader message."

Bottari's message is clear: Don't be afraid to talk.

"I think they're all very interested in this because Luke's goal and Luke's mission in what he thought was missing in all of the touch points on it was that there is no teens helping teens," Natasha Bottari said. "It's call an 800 number, go see a counselor, talk to your parents. But kids aren't doing that. What can we get kids to do? Kids to talk about feelings, 'Hey, are you not doing OK?' I think they're all very interested in that teen perspective."

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(c)2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at www.mercurynews.com

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