Parx cook is helping area teens battle depression

After losing her 15-year-old son to suicide, Stacey Collins became a prevention activist in the community

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Turning hurt into healing: After losing her 15-year-old son Tamont 10 years ago, Stacey Collins immersed herself in doing work for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She shares his story with high schoolers across the tristate area and offers one-on-one counseling services for teens who need to talk. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

From the entryway of Parx Casino’s employee cafeteria, a joyous voice can be heard belting out the ’60s hit by The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy.” Upon walking into the dining space, the source of the song is instantly spotted behind the counter.

Shimmying to the beat of the music is Stacey Collins, a Bristol resident and Parx cook of almost six years. Under her uniform black cap, a warm, larger-than-life smile stretches across her face as she repeats the chorus, passing staff members their food as her perfectly manicured gold nails sparkle in the light. Everyone seems to know Collins, and everyone seems to love her. There’s an unexplainable aura of positivity that surrounds her.

One would never know that 10 years ago, that bright smile didn’t come so easily for Collins. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever smile again. In 2008, her beloved son Tamont took his own life, just six months shy of his 16th birthday. Tamont’s girlfriend at the time had an abortion, and having fatherhood snatched away sent him into a silent, spiraling depression, something he simply couldn’t cope with any longer.

Tamont’s suicide came as a bitter shock to family and friends. A star athlete and academically-gifted student, Collins’ son was supposed to do great things.

“To them, he had everything. He had the perfect life,” she said. “He was a very kind spirited person. He was one of those people that helped everyone with their situations, that he never inflicted what he was going through on anyone else.”

As Collins attempted to comprehend the devastating loss of Tamont, life continued to rear its ugly head. The next two years saw the passing of her mother, the loss of Collins’ job and home, and the discovery of a stomach tumor, a major health scare that landed Collins in the hospital for some time. At this point, Collins had a decision to make. Would she let these hardships completely destroy her? Or would she find a way to overcome them? Through her own faith and willpower, Collins emerged from the darkness stronger than ever.

Ever since, Collins has immersed herself in doing work for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, sharing Tamont’s story with high schoolers across the tristate area and offering one-on-one counseling services for teens who need to talk. They know the cell phone of “Ms. Stacey” is always on.

“By doing that, it empowered me. It freed me. But it also freed my son. The more I told his story, the more I understood some of his hurt,” she said. “I’m extremely blessed to know that I could’ve went either way. I could’ve lost my mind along with losing everything else. It allows you to see that you have more fight in you than what you see. I’m fighting for a reason. I’m striving for a reason.”

For Collins, that “reason” is simple — to prevent more families from suffering the crushing aftereffects of suicide by shedding light on this often taboo topic. By hearing Tamont’s story, her young listeners realize they’re not alone. To further drive home her message, Collins began hosting an Out of the Darkness Walk at Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, New Jersey, which this year will take place on Saturday, Oct. 13. What started with 10 walkers has grown into a community tradition, with proceeds benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

At the walk, Collins serves as a “resource for resources,” making young people aware of services like free counseling at their colleges. When Tamont was struggling with depression, he didn’t think talking about his feelings was an option. Collins wants to make sure students, even the toughest football stars, understand it’s OK to ask for help.

“It allows kids to get information, get phone numbers,” she said. “Being African-American, it’s hard to know where to seek the help because it’s very taboo.”

The Out of the Darkness Walk is also a therapeutic experience for people who have already lost a loved one to suicide. Collins wanted to create an understanding, supportive community — something she struggled to find 10 years ago.

“Losing my son by way of suicide, I didn’t have anyone,” she said. “Other people treated me like they could catch suicide. It was hard. I didn’t want anyone to feel that type of added pain.”

It’s safe to say Collins is one extraordinary person, and her Parx family thought so as well. Earlier this year, Christopher Smylie, team member communications and event planner, nominated Collins for Cintas Corporation’s Everyday Impact program, which recognizes workers who are having a positive effect in their communities. It was recently announced that Collins was one of the winners, and will be flown to Chicago later this month for an awards banquet. Collins, who had no idea she was nominated until Cintas representatives pleasantly ambushed her in the cafeteria to inform her she won, is still in awe over the recognition.

“It’s like, they give out awards for that?” she said with a laugh. “But when you get an award, it really makes you think, wow I did that.”

As Collins continues to be a shining force at Parx, pink “leave a little sparkle wherever you go” tote in hand, she is working behind-the-scenes to push herself even further. Collins is on the brink of completing a bachelor’s degree in human services with a specialization in mental health and addiction from University of Phoenix, which she plans to follow with a Drexel University master’s degree in addiction and counseling.

Her ultimate goal (in addition to working at Bensalem’s Livengrin) is to open a healing and retreat center in honor of Tamont, which would promote her mantra — “Turn your hurt into healing and turn it into help.” ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com