VIRGINIA BEACH, VA (WTKR)- The mental health discussion has become more and more central since the COVID-19 pandemic. Jon Laaser, who used to call Virginia Tech football and basketball games as the "Voice of the Hokies," now hopes to be at the center of that conversation.
"The ladybug represents grace and optimism and hope and those are things that we're hoping to provide resources to bring to people's lives," Laaser said.
He's describing Laaser's Ladybug Society, an organization founded by him and his wife, Renee, with an emphasis on mental health. It was a cause big enough to make Laaser walk away from the broadcast booth at the beginning of the year.
"Getting to the top of broadcasting and achieving a lot of those goals, that wasn't necessarily providing me with the contentment that I wanted," he recalled.
Since 2015, the broadcast professional had been watching some of the most exhilarating Hokie athletic moments up close and personal. Growing up, his front row seats saw mental health struggles. Laaser is the son of two psychologists and he was able to see the positive impact of their work, but he has also battled depression and anxiety himself since a very young age. His siblings also wrestled with mental health struggles and a relative's attempt at self-harm during the 2021 holiday season served as a wake-up call.
"That was kind of the kick in the tail that said 'you know what? Alright, get in the game,'" Laaser remembered.
"I was surprised, I would say, when Jon was like 'you know what? Let's just do this. Let's jump both feet into the water and let's give this a go,'" Renee added.
The Laasers are now all in, dedicating a majority of their time to the foundation. Their current goal is to get mental health professionals in schools across Virginia, trying to help issues during childhood so they don't grow into bigger problems for people as adults.
"Teenage suicide and self-harm and it's getting younger and younger and it's becoming more rampant in our country," pointed out Renee. "Is there anything we can do to try to help it or prevent it from happening? This is kind of our best shot at doing that."
"Get kids help that they weren't able to get, even as recently as five years ago," Jon said of the goal. "Lord know back when I was in school we didn't talk about any of that stuff. It wasn't there."
The couple's project may be in the early stages, but their efforts are in mid-season form. You'll find piles of Laaser's Ladybug Society tee-shirts around their home, ready for sale and distribution. Next month, they'll host their first event, a pickleball tournament in Chesterfield County outside of Richmond. It's a little northwest of Hampton Roads, but they hope players from the 757 will make the trip.
"We'd love people from Virginia Beach," said Jon. "We know there are so many players here. I know a few have already signed up and it's just a two hour easy drive, based on the HRBT of course."
It promises to be a fun event, but will be pushing a serious message. The Laasers hope that many from eastern and central Virginia will hit the court for the cause.
"I'd like to think that we're understanding that a lot of these addiction problems and self-harm, a lof of times there is a darker and deeper root than I think maybe we first realized a few years ago," Renee pointed out.
"Just like everything else, you can approach serious topics and still have fun and bring happiness to it and that's essentially what we're trying to do," added Jon.
The Laaser's Ladybug Pickleball Classic is June 11-12 at the Chesterfield Technical Center. It will feature men's and women's doubles, mixed doubles and singles matches. The event will feature fun for the entire family, including food trucks, a live DJ and a bounce house. Those interested in registering can click here.