Student-led organization donates 10K to help youths with mental health illnesses

The Lighthouse Project and Northern Pines are continuing to help area students both with funds and through community messaging aimed at taking away the stigma around mental health and seeking help when it's needed.

Brainerd High School students Logan Carlson (left), Keaton Walkowiak, Kate Sullivan , director of opeations, Kim Schaefbauer, clinical director at Northern Pines, and Hayden Kvalevog, a student, talk Monday, Dec. 14, about the Lighthouse Project's donation to Northern Pines Mental Health Center. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

It was the best Christmas present Northern Pines could have received — $10,000 to go toward helping Brainerd and Baxter students in need of mental health services.

Northern Pines is a certified community behavioral health clinic that provides clinical mental health care, along with preventative, educational and supportive programs throughout central Minnesota. It is a private nonprofit agency serving Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties.

On Monday, Dec. 14, two staff members at Northern Pines’ Brainerd office off Maple Street received the “big check,” a monetary donation, from Brainerd High School students who are part of the nonprofit organization called The Lighthouse Project.

The Lighthouse Project was formed as an all-encompassing project shortly after several Brainerd students took their own lives in 2018. Students started the nonprofit because they wanted to do something to help people who may be feeling like there is no other alternative than death by suicide. The Lighthouse Project is not affiliated with the nonprofit organization called Smiles for Jake or its merchandising.


The Lighthouse Project’s mission is to be a catalyst for the improvement of mental health and suicide prevention by focusing on community-based solutions.

RELATED: Smiles for Jake movement moves forward: Set to launch Thursday "We can't control mental illness, but we can control how we treat one another." Those words, spoken by Pastor Hans Anderson of Trinity Lutheran Church in Brainerd Sunday, Feb. 17, at Brainerd High School, helped launch the nonprofit organization ...
The nonprofit raises funds necessary to support voluntary mental health screenings for all Brainerd High School and Forestview Middle School students; and promotes programs and events, which create and sustain a supportive atmosphere of community for the betterment of mental health within the schools.

The three BHS students who awarded the $10,000 check to Northern Pines were Hayden Kvalevog, a senior; Logan Carlson, a junior; and Keaton Walkowiak, a sophomore. Kate Sullivan, director of operations, and Kim Schaefbauer, clinical director, of Northern Pines, accepted the check.

This is the second check The Lighthouse Project donated to Northern Pines. The first check of $25,000 helped 44 students. The nonprofit also raised $10,000 at its 2019 Family Fun Night event for the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation to be used for mental health programs in the schools. However, Essentia Health awarded a $10,000 grant to The Lighthouse Project for mental health improvement — and it has not yet been determined where money will be spent.

RELATED: In memory of a friend: Nonprofit to keep light on for mental health awareness Brainerd High School sophomore Jake Haapajoki was known to always have a smile on his face. He was always joking around, smiling and laughing, BHS juniors Noah Ebinger and Noah Sundberg said of their friend, brother and teammate on the BHS varsit...
Walkowiak said The Lighthouse Project is student-led and the students come up with the ideas on how to raise money. The organization has a board of adult members who are there for support and guidance when needed.

Walkowiak thanked everyone who has donated to The Lighthouse Project for their last couple of events. Recent events the group hosted to raise money included a pumpkin-carving event, a virtual run and sponsoring a meal at a restaurant where a portion of the sales go to the nonprofit.

The Lighthouse Project also sells clothing with proceeds going toward mental health awareness in the Brainerd lakes area. The clothing includes heavy-blend hoodies, long-sleeve tees and T-shirts. A common clothing design is a smiley face in remembrance of Jake Haapajoki.

RELATED: Northern Pines donates computers, tablets for telehealth Northern Pines Mental Health is donating its old laptops and tablets to clients in financial need so they can do telehealth visits with their therapists during a time when mental health challenges are increasing due to the coronavirus pandemic while access to in-person care due to COVID-19 concerns is decreasing.
Carlson said with COVID-19 restrictions in place and with the executive orders made by Gov. Tim Walz since March, it has been tougher to plan events to raise money.


“There's not much we can do right now,” Carlson said. “We're just trying to do the best we can. We've done a couple online events, we're doing ... online sales and everything we can. We’re just trying to push a lot of positive messaging over social media and online that people can still see. And we've built up funds, and we're still trying to build it up and keep working on it, but we're just doing the best we can right now.”

Positive messages on the organization’s Facebook page at include “Life is tough, but so are you,” “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always” and “Remember To Treat Yourself Kindly When Your Emotions Are Beating Up Your Brain.”

The students said the organization continues to grow with the community’s support. Carlson added they do more than just fundraising. They work on mental health awareness, help raise the spirits in the community and try to stop the stigma around mental health.

Sullivan said Northern Pines is grateful for the donation from The Lighthouse Project.

“This is so impressive and really heartwarming for us,” Sullivan said. “This is a student-led organization that has done such amazing work. I mean, it leaves us speechless, honestly. And 100% of these funds go directly towards students that either have high deductibles, or no insurance at all. We are finding ... it's sometimes so difficult for families right now with the way the economy is and with some people being laid off and depending on their deductibles. It's very difficult sometimes to justify spending money on mental health. As sad as that is, it's true. And we're just so very grateful .... and want to support them to the best that we can.”

Schaefbauer, of Northern Pines, said she respects the students’ passion for mental health.

“A lot of kids do not have the same kind of passion that you guys do,” she said. “And I respect your leadership and I'm very grateful for your assistance. I think the whole portion where you talked about getting rid of the stigma is key. In order to get people help and letting them know it's OK to ask for help ... people can get better.”

Sullivan said seeing the young adults step up and help others with mental health issues is impressive. She told the students they are great role models for all students and the community.


Kvalevog said students now, more than ever, need mental health help with distance learning and the pandemic.

“Everyone is feeling it right now ... and I think it's more important than ever before and to really touch on it,” Kvalevog said. “We’re really putting an emphasis on our social media campaigns ... because it's difficult for everyone."

More information on The Lighthouse Project can be found at .

Get help

If in a crisis or in need of help — or know of someone who is — call the Crisis Line and Referral Services at 218-828-HELP (4357) or 800-462-5525. The Crisis Line is answered by local, trained volunteers 24 hours a day. It is a free, anonymous and confidential service.

TXT4Life is a free, 24-hour confidential crisis counseling service offered in Minnesota. TXT4Life allows texters to connect with trained counselors 24 hours a day. To text for free confidential help, text “Life” to 61222. Wait for a trained crisis counselor to respond.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to clarify that The Lighthouse Project is not affiliated with the nonprofit organization called Smiles for Jake or its merchandising. The Lighthouse Project was formed as an all-encompassing project shortly after several Brainerd students took their own lives in 2018.

JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at or 218-855-5851. Follow me at on Twitter.
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