Mr. Zionsville Show Highlights Local Talent While Helping to Destigmatize Mental Health
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Christie Turnbull
Back in 1987, the junior class at Zionsville Community High School decided to raise funds for prom by putting on a talent show called Mr. Zionsville. The show, which involves a choreographed dance, talent portion, and Q and A, has gotten popular through the years.
“Now we sell out our performing arts center, which seats over 1,000 people,” says Chelsea Whitaker, Spanish teacher at the high school and staff sponsor for the show.
In 2020 Whitaker thought that since they usually raise around $15,000 in ticket sales, and they don’t need that much to put on a prom, they should donate a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit, to be chosen by the directors and contestants of that year’s show.
In November 2021, tragedy struck when Tate Eugenio, a former Mr. Zionsville contestant, lost his life to suicide. Tate, a college sophomore at the time of his death, was a talented, thoughtful, tenacious young man who was always willing to offer a helping hand.
“His goofiness and playfulness were a big part of his relationship with his sister and friends,” say his parents Angie and Randy. “From a young age he was a deep thinker, asking questions about experiences of life that continued into early adulthood.”
This year, when students began discussing which charity to support, they agreed unanimously to select one that would honor Tate. Therefore, they donated $3,350 to the Indianapolis chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).
“It’s critical to support mental health, particularly for teenagers and young adults, because this is a time of constant change, socially, emotionally, physically and mentally,” says Molly Zucker, a senior director of Mr. Zionsville 2023. “Understanding and processing these changes can be difficult. It’s important to have support when it becomes hard to carry on on your own.”
What’s great about Mr. Zionsville is that the students who participate come from different social and activity circles.
“Through Mr. Zionsville, I became close friends with students I never would have known otherwise,” says Ben DeBaltzo, winner of Mr. Zionsville 2023. “We become an unlikely web of support for each other. You can never have too many webs of support in your life. To me, it symbolizes how important every person and every touchpoint might be in suicide prevention. Support on many levels saves lives.”
Whitaker recalls how, when Tate died, it shook everybody’s world.
“He was sweet, genuine and respectful,” Whitaker says. “When you hear of someone who dies by suicide and those who knew them say they never would have expected it, he’s the epitome of that.”
DeBaltzo understands that when it comes to mental health, it’s not black and white.
“The performing arts community saw Tate as an energetic, inspiring, and positive force of good,” DeBaltzo says. “However, many of us never knew the internal battle he was fighting. Tate was a role model and musical prodigy who had his life taken by mental illness.”
Whitaker notes that high schoolers are in a unique season of life as they learn to grapple with so many emotions and situations.
“They’re starting to enter into all the things that make adulthood very heavy,” says Whitaker, who feels that it’s not uncommon for people to turn a blind eye to this demographic. “Sometimes we lack compassion and empathy for people in that stage of life. I think it’s important that there are lots of adults caring for teens and watching their backs. Teens need to know that we’re here to listen to them no matter what. Teens need to be sought out in that way, because sometimes they want to appear like they have it all together.”
DeBaltzo, Zucker, and their fellow contestants and directors are passionate about raising awareness for mental health.
“Groups like the AFSP are invaluable because oftentimes students struggle silently, fearing that talking to others and getting help is weak or burdensome,” DeBaltzo says.
The Eugenios are grateful that Zionsville students continue to remember their son and shine a light on mental health.
“We hope to destigmatize mental health by allowing others to see it as an illness, just like diabetes or cancer, and that it should be openly addressed,” say Angie and Randy. “We love what AFSP is doing to support those who have lost someone to suicide, but also provide guidance for those families who are struggling with resources and advocacy.”
For more information on AFSP, visit afsp.org/chapter/indiana.