UK student’s family turns ‘smiles into hope’ with mental health foundation

Taylora Schlosser speaks about her daughter Taylor Nolan at the one-year celebration of the Rae of Sunshine Foundation on Jan. 8, 2020 in Springfield, Ky. Photo provided by Harrison Burchett

Jacob Eads

SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — Just about 56 miles from UK sits Mordecai’s on Main, a small-town, family-first kind of restaurant situated in the heart of Springfield. It’s the type of place where you’re bound to run into anyone and everyone you know on any night.  

It seems quiet enough from the outside, but this past Wednesday night you’d never have known there were hundreds of people jam-packed inside, all of them sporting t-shirts and buttons emblazoned with a bright, curly “Rae of Sunshine.”

Wednesday’s celebration was a chance for the Springfield community to gather and remember UK student Taylor Nolan. Taylor died of suicide exactly one year prior on Jan. 8, 2019.

Since her death, Taylor’s family has taken it upon themselves to make sure no other family has to deal with the same feelings of grief they’ve dealt with over the past year. Enter the Rae of Sunshine Foundation. 

Taylora Schlosser, Taylor’s mother, says she first knew she wanted to share her daughter’s story with others just one day after her death.

“Well, I would say that was Jan. 9, 2019. That’s when Colton, my oldest son, said, ‘Mom we have to do something,’” said Mrs. Schlosser. “At that point, I couldn’t even stand to hear the word suicide, but he was adamant, over and over, that we had to do something.” 

One year later, the Rae of Sunshine Foundation has developed into a full-fledged nonprofit aimed at increasing awareness about mental health issues in Kentucky. Mrs. Schlosser has traveled more than 5,000 miles and spoken to close to 12,000 people at 47 different events in her pursuit to erode the stigma surrounding mental health treatment.

At her speaking engagements, most of which are at different schools and universities, she says she has just one goal – to tell Taylor’s story.

She says that challenge has gotten easier with time.

“The first time was a lot different than what I do now,” said Mrs. Schlosser. “The first time I got up and spoke, it was a banner and I had my sweatshirt and I had no pictures. I just got up and spoke from the heart.

“It took me at least three times speaking in front of people before I could even say the word suicide. But, I finally said that if the purpose of this is to make sure no other parent deals with what I’ve dealt with then I’m going to have to say the word.”

From a single banner and a few words from the heart, Mrs. Schlosser’s foundation has grown into quite an operation, complete with a crew of Rae of Sunshine Ambassadors scattered throughout the state, a growing social media presence and even some merchandise that Mrs. Schlosser says reflects Taylor’s bubbly personality. 

But however impressive Mrs. Schlosser’s traveling foundation may seem, she says it would be impossible to do all she does alone. She also has a full-time job as Superintendent of Marion County Public Schools. Luckily, she receives a lot of support from her community. 

“There has not been a day go by that I felt like I was doing this alone,” Mrs. Schlosser said. “It’s hard to describe because it’s a text message, a social media post. It’s a picture. It’s a t-shirt. It’s a bumper sticker. It’s a note. It’s a gift. People have been so thoughtful and so supportive.” 

If you take a stroll around downtown Springfield, you’d be hard pressed not to see at least one Rae of Sunshine t-shirt during your trip. This small community has really bought into what Mrs. Schlosser is trying to preach.

“It means a lot to people,” said Teresa Preston. “I mean there are over 250 people here on a Wednesday night in this community. We love what she is doing.” 

The Rae of Sunshine Foundation also receives its fair share of support from UK. Many of Taylor’s friends at UK have taken it upon themselves to become Rae of Sunshine Ambassadors. They say that’s what she would’ve wanted.

“I think the work that the foundation is doing exemplifies what Taylor did for so many people while she was with us, including myself,” said UK student Cameron French. “Just making people aware that they don’t have to go through things alone.”

Mrs. Schlosser even boasted she’s recently been initiated as a member of UK’s Lambda Alpha chapter of Chi Omega, the same sorority Taylor was a member of.

“That group of family members has really welcomed me, and the support has never stopped,” she said.

But despite the waves of support that have rolled in over the past year, Mrs. Schlosser admits her work at the Rae of Sunshine Foundation can take an emotional toll on her. She just refuses to let it get the best of her.

“A lot of people say, ‘How do you do this? You can’t keep this up,’ and yes I’m going to keep this up,” Mrs. Schlosser said. “I’ve been taking care of children for 27 years… and I get up every day to take care of children.” 

What makes all these long nights and weekends worth it for her? The results, she says.

“You could be speaking to 30 kids or 1,200. When I look in that audience I can see it in children’s eyes. You can see the people you know need to have this conversation,” Mrs. Schlosser said.

“If I can save one family, and I mean that. If I can save one family from experiencing the hurt and the pain that my family and I feel every single day, then all of this work, the Saturdays, the late nights, will be worth it.”

As for the future of the Rae of Sunshine Foundation, Mrs. Schlosser says there is much more to come.

In the fall of 2020, the foundation will offer $10,000 worth of scholarships to students pursuing degrees in fields related to mental health. This is all part of Mrs. Schlosser’s goal to normalize mental health treatment.

“We are just looking at trying to find a way to increase access to mental health,” she said. “What we have found, and what I have found personally as a mother, someone who is grieving  and as a superintendent is that we need more mental health professionals. This is going to make a difference.”

Mrs. Schlosser says that her schedule for the coming year is already packed full of speaking engagements and has already been color coded. She’s even gotten a few requests to present in different states.

She knows that one day she will no longer be able to keep up with the rigorous schedule the Rae of Sunshine Foundation demands, but says she knows it will be in good hands when the rest of her children take over.

As for now, she just hopes she’s making her daughter Taylor proud.

“I think Taylor would be proud,” she said. “I think she would say, ‘If you’re going to do it, then do it 110 percent.’ She would want me to make something out of this. She would not want me to go to bed. This is the kind of grief that would put you to bed.” 

So for the foreseeable future you’ll be able to find Mrs. Schlosser traveling the country in her Rae of Sunshine sweatshirt telling Taylor’s story to whoever will listen.

“She was a good storyteller, so I hope I’m doing her story justice,” said Mrs. Schlosser.