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BroncoBOLD meets the mental health needs of Boise State student-athletes and the community beyond campus

Portrait of Kennedi Paul and Stephanie Donaldson

Five years ago, Kennedi Paul (BS, psychology, 2022) was living a dream, doing something only a small percentage of soccer players gets to experience. She was playing Division I college soccer, the highest level, for her hometown Boise State Broncos. But it didn’t feel like it should. Injuries slowed her down. She wasn’t playing at the level she knew she could. In turn, her academics and relationships suffered. She couldn’t shake her malaise.

“I didn’t have the tools or the preparation to deal with that,” Paul said.

Luckily, Paul connected with Stephanie Donaldson, a former Division I swimmer, now director of athletic counseling and performance psychology for Boise State Athletics.

“I said to her, ‘I want to do something,’” Paul recalled.

Donaldson had begun thinking of launching a student-led mental health project. In Paul, she found an eager partner. In September 2019, they helped Boise State launch BroncoBOLD. The initiative focuses on mental health programming and activities for Boise State student-athletes, normalizing conversation about mental health and overcoming the stigma that has so often plagued the topic.

Student-athletes face the same challenges as other students, but with the added weight of balancing practice with academics and navigating team dynamics, often in a highly public, stress- and competition-fueled atmosphere.

Since the program’s inception, hundreds of student-athletes have participated in BroncoBOLD activities. Senior Markel Reed, a Boise State football cornerback who has contended with multiple sports injuries, is among them.

“Stephanie welcomed me with open arms … she keeps me right,” said the communication major from Temple, Texas. “Being vulnerable, that alone is a lot, but talking was a great relief. It’s not just some secret sauce at Boise State … mental health is so important not just for athletes, but everyone.”

A reach to more Idaho students

Over the past four years, BroncoBOLD has blossomed into local high schools.

Thanks to a grant from the Holland M. Ware Charitable Foundation, based in Eagle, Idaho, the initiative is providing four high schools with mentorship from Boise State student-athletes and advisors who are helping leaders at those schools build mental health programs. Athletes, Donaldson noted, are natural spokespeople for mental health. Identifying areas for improvement and working to get there is in their nature. That’s in addition to their high standing in the community.

Boise State Athletics remains the focus of BroncoBOLD. “But having it reach more people, having student-athletes use their platform to talk about resiliency, hope and help, that’s been incredibly rewarding,” Donaldson said.

Toward a healthy Idaho

BroncoBOLD hosted its first High School Ambassador Leadership Summit in summer 2023. Representatives from three Boise high schools, Timberline, Borah and Capitol, and from Marsing High School in Marsing, Idaho, came together to plan mental health programs.

Kennedi Paul, who recently began graduate school at Boise State with the hope of becoming a school counselor, maintains her relationship with BroncoBOLD. The summit was significant, she said.

“It’s so big for them just to show up, to see BroncoBOLD grow and to see a community become more connected.”

Boise State will select four more schools in 2024 and plans to expand its reach across Idaho. Donaldson has even heard of interest in BroncoBOLD at the junior high level.

“That’s so cool. We never envisioned that,” she said.

Partners united

Donaldson and on-campus partners BroncoFit, the Office of the Dean of Students and University Health Services hosted Suicide Prevention Week in fall 2023. BroncoBOLD offers a non-clinical internship. Six interns from the Department of Psychological Science currently participate. BroncoBOLD has also collaborated with the College of Innovation and Design, the Department of Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning, the School of Social Work, the Master of Athletic Leadership Program and the Department of Counselor Education.

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By Dave Southorn