Missouri family’s tragedy leads to hundreds of acts of kindness
[July 28, 2021: Emily Manley]
A day celebrated in many communities across the state and country is now officially a Missouri holiday.
Aug. 31 will now be recognized as “Random Acts of Kindness Day” across Missouri because of one mom in southeast Missouri who lost her daughter to suicide and wants her legacy to be remembered.
It’s because of Lela Thompson’s daughter Shayley Akers that Missourians will be asked to give a compliment or pay it forward on the day leading into Suicide Awareness Month.
“She was absolutely beautiful, very outgoing,” Thompson said as she held back tears. “She was homecoming queen, cheerleader and in every club you can imagine. She saw the good in everything and everybody.”
Five years ago, Thompson lost her oldest daughter Shayley, making Aug. 31 no easy day for their family, friends or community in Cadet, Missouri.
“We were just completely shocked, completely shocked,” Thompson said. “It can’t be true, not my daughter. We weren’t into drugs. We weren’t what I think is a dysfunctional family.”
Thompson works as a kindergarten teacher at Kingston K-14 school in Cadet. She was at school back in 2016 when he was told about her daughter’s death.
“Before I got home, I got a call to come back. And that’s when the sheriff had told me my daughter had died by suicide, and my world imploded, our world imploded,” Thompson said.
Akers was 19 years old when she died. Her mom said she didn’t know her daughter was suffering.
“To me, she was just a typical teenager who slept a lot. She was moody,” Thompson said. “My child had a mental illness, and I didn’t know. So now I have to be her legacy.”
That legacy is now known as Random Acts of Kindness Day, which Gov. Mike Parson signed into law earlier this month.
“For us, it was a way for us not to cry the day that we lost her. For us, it was a day for us to go out and help people because that honors her personally the best way we know,” Thompson said.
It started as a day in her community in Washington County, then grew to other parts of the state and even the country.
“It went to Jefferson County, St. Francois County, went to Illinois, it was down in Florida, and it just kind of was rampantly spread and the feeling we got from that was so much better than sitting and crying and being down that day,” Thompson said.
This isn’t the first year Thompson has driven to Jefferson City to testify in favor of the holiday. She said they’ve been trying to get the legislation across the finish line for three years now. Rep. Mike McGirl, R-Potosi, sponsored the bill.
“There was just a lot of heartbreak along the way, and finally we got that call that said, hey, this is going to pass,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the new holiday doesn’t require you to spend money. It could be as easily as a compliment or smiling at someone.
“Just find something. It doesn’t matter if it costs. It could be free,” Thompson said. “We want people to remember the kindness. We want people to remember the selflessness that was Shayley, and we want people who are suffering to know it’s OK to not be OK.”
Besides being kind on Aug. 31, Shayley’s mom, with the help of her community, has started a nonprofit called “Shayley’s Angels.” The organization helps raise awareness about suicide and depression.
“People kept coming forward and saying thank you for making depression OK to talk about, thank you for helping,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the group is trained in mental health and help bring free resources to the surrounding communities.
“Because I have a broken arm, you can see it, you can see a physical cast. But when you have a mental illness, it’s invisible to you,” Thompson said. “It’s a change in personality. If your child is very outgoing and suddenly is not, if your child eats a lot and all a sudden stop eating, if your child is very social and then suddenly wants to stay in their room — those are things we miss because those are also typical teenager signs.”
Tuesday, July 27, is also Shayley’s birthday. Her mom said Parson signing Senate Bill 72 is the best birthday present they have ever received.
“This year, we couldn’t think of a better gift when we got that call,” Thompson said. “That was the first thing I thought of was this was the absolute best birthday gift ever.”
The state holiday also leads into Suicide Awareness Month, which is September.
“If we could just get everyone to try just one kind act on Aug. 31, not for me, not for Shayley, but for everybody out there,” Thompson said. “Everybody who is silently suffering, everybody who’s struggling, you don’t know who you could reach.”
Shayley’s Angels has a billboard along the highway outside of Potosi, Missouri. It says, “Depression is an illness and not a weakness.”
“We need kindness in the world, especially today with all the negativity and all the people being stuck so long with COVID and there’s so much more depression because of those things happening,” Thompson said.
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