Risley Lesko and Walter Bailey took center stage and delivered powerful and insightful glimpses into their lives and the mental health support they received in their time of need.
At about the halfway mark of the Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (MIYFS) Foundation’s 20th annual fundraising breakfast, which was held virtually on Feb. 9, the two former football players took viewers through their tough journeys and how they emerged with family and friends standing by their side to help lead them into brighter days.
Islander and KING-TV news anchor Steve Bunin was the master of ceremonies for the “Rise Up!” event, which saw the MIYFS counseling team and staff receive the 2022 Community Philanthropy Award.
In an emotional speech, foundation board member Robin Moore said the awardees have been truly heroic over the last two years of the pandemic.
“You’ve managed to take care of all of the others in your lives and yet show up for us each and every day despite fewer hours in the week and fewer of you on staff. You’ve been the lifeline for so many during a time when the light at the end of the tunnel has been dim to nonexistent. We are forever indebted to you and we want you all to know how much you are appreciated,” Moore said.
Lesko and Bailey’s interviews followed and received copious appreciative pop-up comments from viewers for opening their lives up to others.
Following Lesko’s sophomore football season at Colgate University, the Mercer Island High School (MIHS) 2013 graduate and gridiron standout was diagnosed with type-one bipolar disorder after experiencing episodes of mania and depression.
Not long after his diagnosis, he returned home with his parents from school in upstate New York and at one point, spent three to four months in bed in the depths of clinical depression.
He would soon head to Georgia to receive assistance and begin daily meetings with others with bipolar disorders.
“I got the help that I needed when I needed it because my parents were able to give it to me and they had the knowledge. I got the opportunity to go to a mental health care facility in Atlanta,” he said.
At times, Lesko questioned why he was there and thought about how his life had gone from playing college football to where he presently stood.
“I kind of hit the point where I was like, ‘All right, I can either waste this time or get what I can out of it’ and decided to really commit myself,” he said. “That was where I first really kind of fell in love with counseling and decided that that was what I wanted to do.”
Lesko, who returned to Colgate in 2016 to rejoin the football team and finish his degree, feels lucky to have the opportunity and resources to receive that vital treatment.
He smiled while saying that he’s won the lottery in the parent department and also noted that his fiance has been a major source of support. They were engaged in December of 2021 and Lesko will begin work this spring at the Family Services in Burbank, California. He’s currently working toward his masters of arts degree in counseling at Wake Forest University and aspires to become a licensed mental health counselor and eventually open his own practice.
Portland, Oregon-raised Bailey earned three Rose Bowl rings in the early 1990s for the University of Washington football team, which shared a national championship during one of those stellar seasons.
Not advancing his skills to the National Football League and being cut by the Canadian Football League after one season was a “gut shot” for Bailey, and he began spiraling into anxiety, depression, substance abuse and homelessness.
“My sincerity of purpose was wrapped around a false sense of priorities and a false sense of hope. I was missing that connection of just being OK with me,” he said.
One day in 2010, Bailey experienced a moment of clarity when his best friend pulled him from a crack house and pointed him toward recovery. Before getting help, Bailey said he felt like a failure following his athletic success and forgot about the importance of the human experience.
Bailey has been working in the behavior health field in Portland for the last 10 years and has a loving relationship with his family, wife and daughters.
“My passion is working with people that have given up on themselves or people that have given up on them. It’s fostering relationships with people. That’s the biggest thing is people need to have an understanding that connection is everything, and I love helping people because they help me. Because it’s the right thing to do for me,” he said.
People will face struggles, trials and tribulations and they should never give up on themselves, he said.
“What I know success is for me is a man standing atop of my past failures,” he said. “I feel really good about not having to be ashamed of where I’ve come from. I’ve gone through challenges and changes, but I am human — and I am more proud to be human today than I ever ever have.”
To view the presentation, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7C1yrxcStWI&t=1130s