Michael O’Neill ’21: Walk in the Way of Honor
Philadelphia native Michael O’Neill arrived at Georgia Tech knowing essentially no one. He and his three roommates, who met through a Facebook forum, all decided to rush fraternities (all four ended up accepting bids at Sigma Nu). At Sigma Nu, he came to a house known campus-wide for its outdoor pool and longstanding history and traditions. He found lifelong friends and made lasting memories. From laughing at the travails of club lacrosse players trying to play IM soccer to being inspired to apply for an internship at NASA, Sigma Nu enriched his college experience in countless ways.
But it was in 2020, when tragedy struck the chapter in the form of Brother Andrew Collins’ suicide, that Michael, who had also lost a close high school friend to suicide the year before, and his brothers recognized an opportunity for service.
“I was the community service chair at the time. Along with other brothers in Andrew’s pledge class, I wanted to find something that we could do to honor his memory and raise support for his family. So a few of us reached out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and we did some research and found out that they have campus walks, called Out of the Darkness walks, which raise money for suicide prevention. We were able coordinate with AFSP and Georgia Tech to host a walk on our campus in April of 2021. That involved reaching out for corporate sponsorships, managing the logistics of the walk, and then, of course, the fundraising. On that first walk, there were over 150 walkers, which was a great turnout considering the COVID environment.”
Two members of Andrew’s pledge class, Ryan Carney and Antonio Pfleegor, assisted in organizing the Out of the Darkness walk, while two others, Thomas Costner and Finn Repella, founded a nonprofit called The Andrew Collins Project to raise awareness around mental health disorders in college students and support those affected through affordable and accessible care. That initial 2021 charity walk raised over $11,000 to benefit the AFSP. The following year, Michael helped with the transition to keep it going, and the event raised $13,000 in 2022 (Ryan Carney is leading up plans for this year’s event on April 29th). After graduation, Michael sought to continue his work with AFSP when he moved to Boston for work.
“I got in contact with the AFSP Massachusetts chapter here and found out that they also hold walks throughout the state. I served on the committee to set up the Boston area walk this past October, and got to meet a lot of great people in the mental health space. That walk raised over $100,000. And then right after the walk, the director of the Massachusetts chapter said to me, ‘Hey, we sponsor 10 runners each year for the Boston Marathon. Would you want to apply for a bib?’ I said to myself, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run the historic Boston Marathon.’ So, I applied for a spot, was accepted, and started fundraising and spreading the message, and of course training for the marathon.”
Michael notes how the unique stressors of modern life, from the pressures of social media to the loneliness coming of out the pandemic, leave young people especially vulnerable. “For me, it’s that these are preventable deaths,” he says, citing recently-released CDC data showing suicide as the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 10-14 and 25-34. “This is an incredibly complex issue millions of young people are facing and thousands of researchers and scientists are working on this problem doing research on how we can reduce depression, whether that’s developing new medical treatments and new medicine, or teaching practices such as meditation and mindfulness to students in high school or middle school. (AFSP) does a lot of this kind of work. They are dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy, and to reaching out to people with mental disorders and those impacted by suicide. It is said that healing is a journey not a destination, and AFSP has been a large part of my journey.”
Michael is very literally living the mandate of the Sigma Nu Creed to Walk in the Way of Honor and Serve in the Light of Truth. You can contribute to his efforts supporting the AFSP here: https://www.givengain.com/ap/michael-oneill-raising-funds-for-american-foundation-for-suicide-prevention/#timeline
“With everything going on in the world,” he says, “wars, talks of recession and the negative news cycle, I hope this story brings some hope and some inspiration to those that are struggling.”