It’s a chilly night in February, but you wouldn’t know it inside Denver’s Wellshire Event Center, where 150-plus people cram into the space for a night of food, drinks, and entertainment. From the start, the event looks like a typical fundraising gala: open bar, silent auction, donation envelopes next to each place setting. The host moves about the room, clearly nervous, but more passionate. The keynote speaker is inspirational but long-winded. The magician is a bit corny, but he gets the crowd laughing. The guests, dressed in cocktail attire, mingle like they’ve known each other for years (as many of them have).
If it weren’t for the five-minute video that tells the story of Jaclyn Kurnz, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about the crowd tonight. But she embodies the reason we’re here.
—Video courtesy of Project Helping, produced by Singlecut Films
“For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been suffering from depression,” says the 27-year-old, her face reflected on flat-screen monitors around the room. “As I’m growing older and still suffering, it’s something that I keep a lot more to myself. I’m seemingly happy on the outside, so I think the more frustrating part is it being something I deal with completely on my own on a daily basis.”
But Kurnz isn’t alone. She’s joined by 14.8 million other Americans (about 6.7 percent of the adult population)—including the magician, the keynote speaker, and the organizer of the event, 33-year-old Justin Kruger—who struggle with depression. Kruger is the founder of Project Helping, a Denver-based nonprofit that strives to improve the symptoms of depression through volunteer opportunities, and the host of this fundraiser.
Kruger—who has piercing blue eyes and an easy manner—has dealt with depression for much of his life, from his upbringing in rural Iowa to college at South Dakota State University to jobs working retail at golf shops in Arizona and Colorado. He had tried medications and therapy, but says he didn’t start to feel better until his now-wife, Ashlee, introduced him to volunteering in 2010. “The more I did it, the more I realized how incredibly beneficial it was for someone living with depression,” Kruger says. “The problem for me was that, to start an organization [that provides these opportunities to others], I was going to have to talk about my own depression.”
He describes the disease as “being sad when everything’s going right.” Kurnz, the woman in the video, explains that it’s like “waking up under a black cloud every day.”
“You go to sleep in tears and wake up in tears, but you’re not really sure why you’re feeling so sad,” she says. “Being unable to explain it pushes you a little further into that hole and you isolate yourself.”
Project Helping, which received its 501(c)(3) status one year ago this month, connects people with group volunteer opportunities in the community, in which they give their time to others and gain satisfaction in the process. So far, the organization has done everything from boxing up food at Food Bank of the Rockies to gardening with Re:Vision to judging a youth contest through the Carson J. Spencer Foundation. “One of my favorite ones is when we serve breakfast at Urban Peak twice a month to their homeless youth,” Kruger says. “Stuff like that, where you can literally see the effect [you have] on people face-to-face is impactful.”
Kruger speaks from his own experience, but science backs up his claim. The more you can see who’s ultimately benefiting from your work, the more you gain, according to Autumn Krauss, an organizational psychologist and chief scientist at Sentis, a consulting firm that works with companies to improve the well-being of their employees in the workplace.
“The closer and clearer we can make that line of sight, the more we can get meaning and purpose and have that level of positive well-being,” Krauss says. “Volunteering and getting direct access to nonprofits gives us an excellent opportunity to have that tangible connection to our beneficiaries.”
But more than that, research shows that altruism can activate “pleasure centers” in the brain, releasing a chemical called dopamine—the same one released when we eat good food or have sex. In fact, pro-social behaviors (when people protect and promote others’ well-being), including volunteering, cause more happiness than material consumption like, say, buying a nice pair of shoes. Project Helping breaks it down by saying, “Volunteering creates purpose. Purpose creates joy. Joy combats depression.”
Kruger says the greatest challenge so far has been the organization’s limited funding sources, because some people simply don’t believe that depression and other mental illnesses are a problem. “People don’t think that they know someone who has depression,” he says. “If you don’t know someone, then you just don’t know that someone you know is living with it.”
However, he hopes for Project Helping to be completely self-sustainable by the end of 2016, thanks to the organization’s creation of a social app called KyndHub, which allows users, groups, and businesses to build philanthropic challenges and reward winners. (The app is still in development, but Kruger says he expects it to launch in late summer.) In the meantime, he’ll continue to hold fundraisers, expand the organization (they’re talking about holding specific youth-focused events in schools), and try to educate as many people as possible on the individual benefits of what was once considered a selfless act.
“There needs to be some sort of outlet other than speaking to your psychologist or taking medication,” Kurnz says in her video. “There needs to be some place where we can get out there and be involved and be happy. I feel blessed for having found Project Helping…and I would encourage anyone who may be feeling a little lost or depressed to put yourself out there because the impacts that volunteering has on your life and on your soul are really positive.”
Follow Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.