By Jeff Maisey
On September 10, O’Connor Brewing Company will host a fundraising event for the Chas Foundation. The independent non-profit group raises awareness about mental illness. The topic remains taboo, even as it is cited as a condition many mass shooters suffer from, but it is a factor in suicides.
Suicide hit close to home a few years ago for brewery owner Kevin O’Connor when his best friend – Chas Kirkwood – took his own life. Today, the Chas Foundation is run by Kirkwood’s mother, Tucker, his brother, Beau, and Missy Harris.
I chatted with Kevin O’Connor recently about this and other causes he promotes and helps through his Norfolk-based craft brewery. O’Connor is the 2016 recipient of Hope House Foundation’s Jeff Miller Award, which is given to a person in the community making a difference in the lives of others.
Can your share the brewery’s philosophy on giving back to the community?
It was always my intension to be community related. It’s the mindset of most local breweries to give back as much as possible. Creating the event space that we have at the new location really speaks to that, and allows us to host everything from Hope House Foundation to the Chas Foundation and Decker Foundation. We plan to do that for the rest of our time with O’Connor Brewing Company.
It was something that was ingrained in me growing up around here – to be part of the community and having a platform, such as a local brewery, to do what we can. It also makes me feel good inside as well.
O’Connor produced a themed beer and hosted an event to raise awareness for breast cancer. Your mom is a survivor of the disease. Can you share your feeling about this cause?
Yeah, my mom is a survivor of breast cancer. She has been in remission for a few years now. Obviously that hit close to home.
But again, doing something that’s fun at the same time it means a lot to me. Creating a beer and giving proceeds in her honor to breast cancer awareness was a easy thing for me to do. I love my mom and would do anything for her.
Do you find pairing an important cause with a special beer to be a great way to reach and communicate an important issue for people who may not have it on their radar?
Sometimes it does bring attention to the cause. Making a beer for breast cancer was pretty easy and thought-out from the beginning.
We’ve done Sensible Kolsch for Sensible Seafood and the Virginia Aquarium. That was a really fun one to do because we were able to get into the grocery store chains, and monies go back to that foundation for cleaner waterways and things like that.
You can make El Guapo for the masses, but make a certain beer for a needy cause when you really want to stand behind it.
Mental illness is a difficult cause to address for many people. It’s not as easy as a Save the Bay effort. Can you share your thoughts on bringing awareness to this cause by hosting the Chas Foundation fundraiser?
Growing up mental illness was always one of those taboo things. As I’ve grown up, and it has really hit home, especially with Chas, I feel it has become a real epidemic in America as hospital beds are getting cut back and resources are being cut back.
You see in the news every day now somebody gets gunned down and you find out it was a mentally ill person. Or it was a standoff in Larchmont because there’s a mentally ill person in the home.
Brining awareness to this means a lot to me because I lost one of my best friends I’ve known all my life. This is one of those guys that I grew up with side-by-side. We hung out in the bars together. We talked freely with each other. I watched him move around the country.
Knowing now about what was kind of kept from us was that he was struggling with demons. If I knew what he was going through maybe I could have helped him.
The last time we hung out was fun. We shared beers talking about what’s on the horizon. Then one day he’s there and the next he’s not.
If I had know I feel like I could have talked him off the ledge, and to go back and get some treatment.
With mental illness, especially in the younger group, people tend to self-medicate themselves, be it recreational drugs or drinking.
I hope we can help open up a conversation and let people know what the symptoms are and understand that person sitting out in the tasting room could be my brother. A lot of people aren’t raising their hands and saying this is what needs to be done, so using the brewery as a platform is about getting people from the community in here and showing them what we’re supporting. Hopefully they will see there is a foundation out there to help.