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Western Student Jaden McNeese Takes to the Trails to Raise Money for Mental Health

Jaden McNeese rides his bike on a dirt road during the annual Gunni Grinder event.

“If I could be the difference … I would be incredibly happy”

A lot of people don’t realize living in Paradise can be hard. The mental health of many mountain town residents suffers under the strain of a high cost of living and seasonal or low-wage employment, isolation, and myriad other factors that contribute to high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide. 

It’s a problem that often doesn’t get the attention or funding it needs to make real change. So, first-year Western Colorado University student Jaden McNeese is getting on his bike this summer and putting in the miles to raise the kind of awareness and money that can make a difference.

Cycling to Advocate for Mental Health

Growing up in Lake City, Colorado, McNeese became an avid cyclist in middle school after a local race organizer offered him a spot in a 50-mile race through the San Juan Mountains. When the race was over, he only wanted more.

He kept riding for fun and entering ultra-endurance races every chance he got. Hooked on the physical challenges of long-distance rides, he pushed himself further and further, searching for a breaking point. But he never found it. As a high school student, he was riding over 3,000 miles in the summer and racing all over Colorado. When he arrived at Western, away from home and alone for the first time, as many first-year students are, he turned to his bike for comfort.

“I was really struggling with my own mental health at the beginning of the school year. My mind was lonely, and the only thing that could help was riding my bike,” McNeese said. “After talking to some of the staff at Western, including [Dean of Students] Gary Pierson, I decided to start a fundraiser for CB State of Mind and the Western Rising Mental Health Scholarship Fund.”

Miles for Mountaineers

Now, McNeese is collecting pledges for every mile he rides this summer to support those two local organizations dedicated to providing Western students and residents of the Gunnison Valley with access to mental health services. He’s calling his project Miles for Mountaineers.

“When Jaden approached the WCU Foundation wanting to ride hundreds of miles to raise money to make a difference for his peers in the mental health space at Western, there was no question. We were instantly inspired,” Western’s Director of Donor Relations and Outreach, Mackenzie Bode, said. “It is something special to see a young person invigorated to make a difference in his community.”

Jaden McNeese rides his bike on a paved road near Gunnison.

A Documentary Hits Home

The idea for the fundraiser came to him after he saw a screening of “The Paradise Paradox,” a documentary about the often-hidden mental health challenges of people who choose to live in the most beautiful places on Earth and the growing movement to address those challenges. It’s something McKenzie Mathewson, Western’s Associate Director of Community Wellness, sees in students all too often.

“Working in student wellness, I’ve seen a tremendous rise in the number of students seeking mental health support in my tenure at WCU,” Mathewson said. “As a student-led initiative, this campaign will be an excellent catalyst for destigmatizing mental health struggles experienced by WCU students and provide awareness, support, and accessibility to mental health services that a college student may forgo due to the cost of being a college student.”

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An ad encouraging viewers to donate funds to support Western Colorado University

How You Can Help

On June 1, McNeese will start his Strava app so people can track his progress riding on the dirt roads and singletrack trails of the Gunnison Valley and beyond to see how many miles he can log before the fall semester starts on August 26.

Supporters can see pictures and get updates from his rides on Instagram @Jaden_mcneese or make a pledge to support Miles for Mountaineers by clicking this link. All proceeds will go to CB State of Mind and the Western Rising Mental Health Scholarship Fund.

“I have never done anything like this, but I want to be a support to others who struggle with similar problems as me,” he said. “If I could be the difference between someone living their lives and someone continuing to struggle, I would be incredibly happy.”

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