One evening in their Breckenridge home, Jen McAtamney and her husband, Shawn, were approached by their oldest daughter. She opened up to her parents, being vulnerable and honest. She was experiencing suicidal ideation after a recent sexual assault, and she needed help. What came next was truly eye-opening to Jen. She had strong connections in the community, access to resources, and believed she was fully capable of helping her daughter in need. However, after over 30 phone calls to connect with a therapist, navigating the system with her 18-year child (now a decision-making adult), and realizing the complexity of a broken system, she was overwhelmed and concerned for other people who may have similar struggles accessing mental-health support.
The following year (2019), while working with the Town of Breckenridge, Tim Casey, a longtime friend and colleague, approached Jen to discuss an opportunity. After losing his wife to suicide, the Patti Casey Memorial Fund had been created to honor her kindness and spirit, and work to prevent the loss of others. From this fund along with the support of The Summit Foundation, FIRC, and our community of governments a new organization, Building Hope, was being created and they needed an Executive Director. Jen recalls attending Patti’s funeral and how impressed she was with the family talking freely about Patti’s mental-health struggles that had seemingly gone unnoticed and stayed under the radar for many. “It was so refreshing to hear them talk about it with such openness and honesty.”
Jen came into Building Hope with a strong personal passion for the mission combined with various professional skills from her previous jobs. She was experienced in marketing, system processes, and budgeting. Her time serving on the Breckenridge Town Council and the Pro Challenge bike race created strong connections in the community and background as a spokesperson. Funding from The Summit Foundation as a special initiative and assistance from FIRC (Family and Intercultural Resource Center) were imperative in the formation of Building Hope.
Starting with just a few boxes and donated chairs, Jen and Patti’s daughter Betsy began to transition the FIRC Therapy Scholarship Program into their own Building Hope version with assistance from the Early Childhood Options and a community team group effort. A process that began with handwritten invoices and 35 therapists in the program has transformed into a fully automated system (mountainstrong.org) with over 100 participating therapists for the community. The organization has evolved to offer English, bilingual, and Spanish events, resources, therapists and services – a strong need for Summit County residents.
Stigma reduction and talking about mental-health challenges has also expanded in the community after Jen joined the grassroots organization. “When I first started with the organization, a lot of people hadn’t heard of Building Hope. Now I hear stories of how it has helped people personally, helped businesses and their employees. People are talking more about their own mental-health struggles.”
Being immersed in this type of work can be difficult, often fielding calls from scared parents or participating in difficult conversations. “It can be hard to hear about people suffering and feel like you always want to do more.” Jen relied heavily on time with her beloved family and friends, fur babies, travel and breathwork during her time at Building Hope.
After experiencing her own personal tragedies in 2023, Jen McAtamney has made the difficult decision to say goodbye to her executive director position with Building Hope. While caretaking for her father during his battle with terminal cancer in California, Jen and her husband Shawn took a vacation to Hawaii, a special place where they had spent time with their daughters as children. Unfortunately, complications from a routine appendectomy during their quick beach trip took her beloved Shawn away from the family unexpectedly. A short time later, Jen’s father also passed away after a strong fight with cancer, leaving two large holes in Jen’s support circle and heart.
A true advocate for prioritizing mental health and self-care, Jen is focusing on her own healing journey in the present for a more sustainable future. Weekly therapy sessions and time with her daughters, fur babies and close friends help her to feel happiness in the hard times. “I believe that the universe doesn’t give you stuff you can’t walk through,” she says. “I’m supposed to learn from this and I’m going to try really hard to be a good healer and come out on the other side of this to make Shawn and my dad proud.”
Jen’s contributions and efforts for the community will be fondly remembered by many. Resources for mental-health struggles and maintaining personal connections during a worldwide pandemic were imperative to Summit County residents. Community connectedness events have created a home for many in an area that can often be hard to find connections and friendships. Thousands of locals have been assisted financially and personally on their therapy journeys. Community mental-health trainings have given more people the tools to recognize and assist in their own tough situations at home and work.”
Starting this fall, the Early Childhood Assistance Program will be available for all families with children aged 0-5, an idea that began in 2007 in the Breckenridge Town Council chambers, proving that Jen’s patience and persistence has also paid off. She is also proud of acting as a conveneor for the community and rebuilding a broken mental-health system into a cumulative effort. She has also watched the Building Hope team grow from 2 to 10 employees as services and community needs expand.
Jen feels honored to have contributed to many great changes in the community, but also recognizes there is still more work to do. She is reminded of the constant need for more therapists, including bilingual options as demand for these services grows. Substance-abuse issues remain high in the area, and the need for local in-patient treatment options is great. One dream that Jen hopes will continue at Building Hope is for universal screenings for children in school. “Every year a 20-minute screening with a therapist can open the possibility for early detection and intervention for conditions like autism, depression, or child abuse. It also helps with stigma reduction. If a kid does need therapy, they aren’t scared of it because they have experienced it in a safe place,” shares Jen.
Jen also suggests the community holds the system accountable by paying attention and communicating to local leaders and organizations. “Tell them what YOU need. You can change systems.” Although she did not anticipate the transition to come so soon, she is confident in passing along her role to Kellyn Ender, the new Executive Director at Building Hope.
As Jen continues to adapt to her new normal, she relies on her resilience to get through the hard stuff. She also honors her family and their memories, sharing their journey with the community to encourage everyone to open up and share their own hardships. She also celebrates her family in her own special way. Spending time in their garden and yard brings her back to the years of labor and love put into their beloved outdoor space. On a recent trip to Iceland with her daughter, they stayed warm in Melanzana hoodies that belong to Shawn and Jen’s father, bringing them along on all of their adventures on the island. While preparing for a recent camping trip, Jen realized her and Shawn’s sleeping bags were still zipped together. She decided to keep them together, bringing him along on one of their favorite memories and time spent together as a family.
“Every day since Shawn has passed, I have found some joy or a piece of hope,” she says. “I think that’s been important in my healing by allowing myself to see the beauty of the world and be willing to let it in. I realized the other day that maybe grief is giving all the love you received back into the universe. I got a lot of love from both my parents and my husband. He was a really great partner, I miss him terribly, but he set me up for success for whatever’s next. My story’s not done yet, I’m just redefining Jen.”