The surrounding red brick holds pictures, paintings and people gathered together to hear music played in the company of friends. That was The Handlebar. A near-mandatory tour stop for aspiring artists from a diverse array of music genres ranging from punk, metal, alternative and nearly every sub-genre you can imagine. But in 2001, The Handlebar was destroyed by fire. Gone are the battered skateboard decks mounted high on walls, retired and left to enjoy a life of people-watching and listening to bands on the nearby stage. Silenced are the ping pong table and paddles that whispered during art exhibits, but breathed rowdy and shook hands with those braving an evening escape from classes or work. What once was more than just a building was no more.

In the winter of 2001, on the edge of Christmas, The Handlebar was reborn. A community, families and friends fought to resurrect the building that held so many memories; memories that were left roaming rusty and knowing no exit after the fire. A new building of brick and heart became foundation for new memories and a marker for the old.

The surrounding red brick holds pictures, paintings and people gathered together to hear music played in the company of friends. This is the Handlebar. And during this night, she provides shelter on National Survivors of Suicide Day. A day recognized locally by Seeds of Hope, an event in which a number of dedicated people used music and art to unite survivors, as well as, raise awareness and support for those who are dealing with depression.

The day began with a 5k walk and the night ended at The Handlebar with a celebration featuring a Seeds of Hope Survivor Art Exhibit and performances by Victor Charlie and Five-Eight.

Among the participants, Raela Villanueva is one of the most active and vocal. Not only checking on band members and making sure that everyone in attendance is enjoying their night, she is also announcing the prize winners of the evening’s raffle. Along with gifts donated by area businesses, Villanueva shares hugs with prize winners who are recognized as survivors. She is also a survivor. “My brother Jr. had everything going for him until depression hit him when he got to college. He lost his battle with depression, even after seeking help, at the age of 22 when he shot himself in 1997. Since then I have become an advocate for suicide prevention and awareness.”

As advisor to Students for Suicide Awareness (SSA), Villanueva, along with the help of students, survivors and community members, organized the event. As defined by Villanueva, a survivor can be “someone who has lost a loved one to suicide” or “someone who has attempted but is still here.” When asked what the goals of the Seeds of Hope event were, she replied, “The main goal was to bring together survivors of suicide and others from the community on National Survivors of Suicide Day for a day of healing and hope and to provide resources and information on suicide prevention and awareness. Students for Suicide Awareness’s mission is to raise awareness about suicide prevention and depression through music and art. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death on college campuses and can be prevented.”

Villanueva’s relationship with SSA goes back to 2009 after the death of University of West Florida student, Tyler Knisely. “Tyler was another student who had everything going for him until he was hit with depression. We share their stories, along with the stories of others in our community who have lost someone to suicide and depression with the hopes of breaking the stigma associated with suicide and depression. We are speaking out for our loved ones by planting Seeds of Hope so that other families do not have to suffer such tragedy.” Adding to the cause, “Suicide can happen to anyone, any family; young and old, black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight, bi, rich, poor, or homeless. Everyone should be aware of the risk factors, warning signs, and resources, because you never know who is suffering from depression.”

The night was punctuated with smiles, hugs, laughter, remembrance and music. Opening for Five-Eight were Victor Charlie. The band was formed in Athens, Georgia, but lead singer/guitarist Charlie Garland has strong ties to Pensacola and the evening’s cause. His relationship is explained by Villanueva, “Charlie Garland is from Pensacola and was one of my brother’s best friends. Five Eight was one of the first bands that they saw together right out of high school. Charlie moved to Athens and met Five Eight through the extensive music scene. Charlie heard about the Seeds of Hope walk and wanted to be a part of it.” Near the end of Victor Charlie’s set, Garland paused briefly to introduce and personally thank Five-Eight, “These guys are my heroes.”

Having spent the entire night in the company of fans and event participants, the members of Five Eight, Mike Mantione (guitar, vocals), Patrick Ferguson (drums), and Dan Horowitz (bass) showed no signs of weariness. Displaying the enthusiasm and candor that have laced their performances on numerous visits to Pensacola throughout their long history, they provided a powerful conclusion to the event. Mantione balanced the tone of their music with a moving blend of biting sarcasm and a compelling need to engage, connect and embrace the audience. During a break between songs, he directed his attention to a few people who were loud in conversation while he tried to introduce the band’s cover of a Fugazi song. Not as much commanding or demanding, his plea for respect edged the borders of a young adult, full of excitement, fighting for autonomy, as well as, searching for compassion.

“Five Eight has always been instrumental in raising awareness about mental health issues.” Echoed Villanueva when asked about the band’s involvement. With each song of Five Eight’s performance, the seemingly impossible became real as the communal energy multiplied with intensity as the night flirted with morning. Providing the most physical display of energy was Ferguson, whose heavy drumming attack left his sticks splintered and nearly demolished. Ferguson is active in the Athens music scene, having toured with bands such as the Psychedelic Furs and worked with many artists including folk legend, Vic Chestnutt, who committed suicide on Christmas day of 2009. Ferguson’s presence and fervor complimented the cathartic notes of the performance. Crowd stomps gave way to dance and short cheers between songs grew into full shout-alongs during them. Mantione even shared the stage and his microphone with Garland, allowing the passionate musician to sing the lyrics of the band he held as heroes, while Mantione stood back and rocked his deep-blue Gibson Les Paul guitar. When he finally stepped off stage, Garland was visibly moved while friends came and patted his back and continued watching the show by his side.

Releasing energy and emotions, the event came to an end, but the rebuilding continues. With memories and heart, the community of survivors, families and friends are fighting to support each other and reach out to those who are falling into depression.

If a person is considering suicide or knows someone that is, Villanueva suggests seeking help “through several online resources, a helpline, or if it is an emergency, they can go to the Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) through Lakeview Center or any emergency room.”

To those that have recently lost a loved one to suicide, Villanueva offers these words, “You are not alone and that utilizing a support group will help you deal with the roller coaster of emotions. There are also online resources that can help you to understand what you are going through. Everyone in your family will deal with the grief differently, so you may have to reach for help outside your family and even your friends may not understand. It will get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.”

Drawing from the lessons she has learned from fellow survivors, she adds, “We really can lean on each other for support, we can talk about our loved ones, what happened, what we are feeling; the guilt, the shame, the blame, the hopelessness, the anger, etc. That you have to keep going even though the pain you sometimes feel is so intense that you just want to die.”

Online resources:

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The Jed Foundation

To Write Love On Her Arms

Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition

Students for Suicide Awareness

Suicide Prevention Lifeline.


CSU is located at Lakeview Center, Bldg. “S”, corner of Avery and “J” Streets – 469-3495.”

In addition to the above listings, Villanueva provided this link with warning signs:

Suicide Warning Signs


Like this at Facebook!