Natalie Merchant and other acclaimed Hudson Valley artists and musicians sang beside students in the memory of the late Maya Gold and her eponymous foundation.

Last October, after 15-year-old New Paltz High School student Maya Gold took her own life, her family created the Maya Gold Foundation. According to the foundation’s website, their mission is to “empower youth to access their inner wisdom and realize their dreams.”

Their two main goals focus on supporting existing programs and developing new ones for teens in New Paltz and surrounding areas that will enhance emotional awareness and build mutual support and caring among teens and adults. In addition, they promote strengthening inner resilience and teaching mindfulness practice, as well as partnering with carefully vetted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Nepal to provide essentials, such as food, medicine and education, to children in need and to provide opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges between youth in New Paltz and Nepal.

“[Maya’s] vision was to graduate high school early and volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal,” said Mathew Swerdloff, Maya’s father and president of the Maya Gold Foundation. “She was really moved by the books she read and the movies she saw about that part of the world, so we’re trying to carry out her vision.”

With that in mind, Merchant and other local musicians such as Amy Helm, Daniel Littleton, Simi Stone, Elizabeth Mitchell and several others sang and played songs of joy, friendship and nostalgia alongside New Paltz High School students Andersen Carroll, Caleb Sheedy, Carmen Chu, Christina Rust and Klaire Branche at Studley Theater on Saturday, Oct. 22 as part of a Maya Gold Foundation benefit concert. Members of the foundation’s teen advisory board, Amelia Verderosa, Emilie Aebi and Lianna Maley, also recited poetry.

Swerdloff said that this weekend’s benefit concert raised over $25,000, with people from all over the community, as well as family and friends, coming out to support the foundation’s cause. He added that all the money raised will fund the foundation’s educational programs, which focus around raising awareness about suicide along with the pressures and issues that teens feel while growing up.

“Everything we do spreads the word and gets people talking and thinking,” Swerdloff said. “Adolescence is a really tough time of life, as we all know as people who have already been through it, and sometimes young people make bad choices because they don’t realize that it’s a phase, that it’s going to pass.”

Angela Zizzamia, a resident of Woodstock and psychologist at Health Alliance Hospital in Kingston, attended the benefit concert not only because she is a fan of all the artists who performed, but because she feels very close to the spirit of the foundation as well.

“I admire that the foundation gives a voice and a [means of] expression to the loss of their daughter, a memory of their daughter, but also a keener sense of awareness so that we can help one another,” Zizzamia said.

Sarah Dukler, a New Paltz native and former babysitter of Maya and her older brother Adin, said that the benefit concert allowed members of the community to be exposed to the foundation’s goals and to bring awareness to teen suicide. Dukler, who was deeply affected by Maya’s death as someone very close to the family, felt that this loss rang a little too true with how she felt when she was in high school, trying to balance social, academic and familial pressures all at once.

“I think that even if they didn’t know Maya, a lot of people identify strongly with the foundation because they have children that are Maya’s age and they really want to teach their teens that there is another option,” she said. “You never really know what’s going on in someone’s life and it’s so important to be kind. In my life, being kind to people has become so much more important than it already was, and to just learn how to be there for people.”

The Maya Gold Foundation has two more upcoming events on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Coykendall Science Building, entitled, “Emotions Matter: Creating More Compassionate Schools and Communities Through Emotional Intelligence,” along with “You Don’t Know Me Until You Know Me,” a one-man performance by Dr. Mykee Fowlin on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Rosendale Theater Collective in Rosendale.

This story first appeared in The New Paltz Oracle on October 27, 2016.

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