June 6, 2016

How a lifetime of depression inspired one man to give back

Justin Kruger co-founded Project Helping to serve communities and raise mental health awareness

Justin and Ashlee Kruger founded Project Helping, an organization whose mission is to "use the joy and purpose created by volunteering to improve mental wellness." Photo courtesy of Project Helping

Justin Kruger struggled with depression for most of his life. He tried many of the traditional methods of treatment, including therapy and medication, but none were effective.

“I was frustrated by the lack of improvement,” he said. “I had essentially given up on anything really helping.”

Kruger is one of 43.8 million American adults who experience mental health issues in a given year. While mental health has become an issue of national concern, only 41 percent of adults with a mental illness in the U.S. received mental health services in the past year. In 2014, Kruger and his wife, Ashlee, founded Project Helping to promote the treatment of mental health conditions through a novel approach: giving back to those in need.

“Our mission is to use the joy and purpose created by volunteering to improve mental wellness,” Kruger said.

Kruger first experienced the power of volunteering when he met Ashlee in 2010. Shortly after meeting, she invited him to participate in a volunteer project to build a sustainable garden at an under-served school in Denver. He was reluctant at first, but she ultimately convinced him.

“I was immediately moved by the experience,” Kruger said. “I started to volunteer as much as I could, wherever I could.”

Whether he was restoring hiking trails with Outdoor Colorado or serving meals at the Denver Rescue Mission, Kruger soon realized he was drawn to volunteering because it significantly improved his mental well-being.

“That realization inspired me to want to share my experience with others who may be struggling,” he said.

Four years after they met, the couple founded Project Helping with the goal of creating “hands-on, social, and easy-to-join volunteer projects focused on the mental wellness benefits for the volunteer.” Project Helping started in Denver and then expanded to several other cities, including San Diego and New York. The organization has formed partnerships with groups such as Reading Partners, a tutoring nonprofit, and also has led service events on its own. Over the last two years, approximately 1,500 volunteers have participated in service events though Project Helping.

Project Helping uses community service to tackle mental health issues. Photo courtesy of Project Helping

In 2015, Project Helping led 83 service projects, and in 2016 the organization aims to reach 150. As Project Helping continues to expand, the positive impact that volunteering has on participants has grown increasingly clear. Following each service event, Justin and Ashlee offer an optional self-assessment survey to gauge the relationship between volunteering and mental wellbeing. According to the organization’s latest data, 80 percent of volunteers felt more in control of their mental health and depression, and 78 percent of volunteers stated that volunteering lowered their stress levels.

“We have also found that the lower someone rates their own mental wellness at the beginning, the better the immediate impact volunteering has [on] them,” Ashlee said.

While Justin and Ashlee do not encourage volunteers to abandon traditional methods of mental health treatment, they do believe that volunteering should be part of a holistic effort to minimize mental illness nationwide.

“We envision a world where helping others is a vital tool for everyone to maintain and improve their mental wellness,” Kruger said.

"Volunteering and helping others can give you a whole new perspective." -- Volunteer Nancy Scholes

This vision is already becoming a reality for volunteers like Nancy Scholes, who has battled severe anxiety most of her life.

“One of the biggest issues I have with my anxiety is trying to be present,” she said. “I found that volunteering forces me to be in the moment and blocks out the typical worries that are on my mind.”

Nancy regularly volunteers with Project Helping at the Urban Peak community center, which offers homeless teens in the Denver area a place to shower, do laundry, and enjoy a hot meal.

“Volunteering and helping others can give you a whole new perspective,” said Nancy. “Seeing the gratitude it brings to others in need can be the light that pulls you out of your own darkness.”

Scott Rodd

The Renewal Project