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Tri-Valley Hero: The Nimmo family, standing up to anxiety

Courage award recipients shine light on mental health after personal tragedy

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Steve Nimmo and daughter Samantha (second and third from left) participate in panel discussion after screening of documentary "Angst" last spring. (Photo by Mike Sedlak)

Tri-Valley Hero recipients tend to savor the spotlight, but when the Nimmo family of Pleasanton accepted the Courage award last month, the moment was quiet and somber.

It was a moment they didn't imagine happening a year ago -- and wished their reason for being there didn't either.

"We only wish we weren't, which would mean we're not doing what we're doing, which would mean our son is still here," Steve Nimmo said in a recent interview. "It all unravels that way. It's humbling, though; we don't think of it as courage or heroism or whatever the right word is ... This is something that needs to get done, and this is something that our son would've done."

Zachary Nimmo was caught in the throes of anxiety when he died last year.

Despite constant questioning from father Steve and mother Mannie, Zachary assured them that he was doing OK. But underneath the facade of happiness was a well of pain that led the 15-year-old to take his own life last fall.

It was all that the Nimmo family, including daughter Samantha, could do to not self-implode. Amid their palpable grief, the Nimmos formed a nonprofit organization in February called the Z-Cares Foundation, which promises to "stand up to anxiety."

"That was one of our coping mechanisms; it helped us talk about him a lot. The whole thing is built in his name," Steve said. "We ask a lot if we think he would like what we're doing. Usually the answer is he wouldn't like the fact that his name is attached to it, but he would like the action that's being taken, because he wouldn't like the attention, which would've been his anxiety talking."

Mannie also found that staying busy helped the family carry forward, even while engulfed in tragedy.

"Pretty much right away after he passed, we decided we needed to do something," she said. "The biggest thing for us was just educating people" about anxiety and its effects.

Anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association, is "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure." The disorder affects an estimated 1 in 3 youths, and, as the Nimmo family noted, also comes with stigma attached.

Z-Cares, which was named in Zachary's memory, aims to erase the taboo of mental health issues by educating and opening conversations about it with community members.

"There are so many preconceived notions about how (anxiety) looks, people are afraid to talk about it," Mannie said.

After producers of the mental health documentary "Angst" reached out following Zachary's death, Mannie said her family found "the courage to do something."

Encouraged by others in the community, the Nimmo family and Z-Cares have hosted several screenings of "Angst" over the past year, including another earlier this week at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore.

"It's our moment for everybody to get to know him a little bit, because not everyone did know him," Steve said, so every screening starts with a story about Zachary, then concludes with a panel discussion led by the Nimmo family and mental health experts.

Talking about anxiety is especially important, according to Steve, because doing so can help by rerouting the person's thought process. "Just the act of talking utilizes a series of functions in your brain to help take you out of your amygdala and into your frontal lobe, which gets you out of your anxiety moment," he added. "If we can talk about it, maybe we can take the power away from anxiety, so that's what we're trying to do is create conversation."

In addition to more "Angst" screenings, Z-Cares also has other plans for mental health education; Steve and Mannie recently completed mental health first aid training and intend to help others become certified as well.

"It's just about recognizing -- because I don't think as adults we even have the skills to understand what we're dealing with," Steve said. "It's such a hidden disorder that these kids are suffering from, and so this gives us some of those skill sets to get some of those recognitions in place and take the appropriate action."

Zachary's sister Samantha wants to take her training one step further and make it her life's work. Before her brother's death, Samantha was interested in kinesiology, but "my experienced over the past year has really opened my eyes to the struggles that our society is facing."

"I just realized this is what I want to do, to help people," Samantha said. "I want to make that my life goal, to help people that are struggling with mental health, because I've seen firsthand what's happening."

Steve wants to help people as well, but his wish for Z-Cares might not happen:

"Ultimately, wouldn't it be great if we went out of business because we're not needed anymore -- I guess that would be the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, I don't think we're anywhere near that space. We'd love to not be needed; but, unfortunately, I think we are. The community is supporting us to the point where they're showing that they want this type of help out there."

Hero FYI

* Zachary Nimmo (called "Z" by those close to him) excelled in soccer and lacrosse, and was "a self-proclaimed geek" who loved fishing, gaming and comics.

* The Z-Cares Foundation is for Zachary, and his memory influences every action taken and event hosted by the group. "We actually start every screening, every board meeting, almost every everything with a story about Zachary," said Steve Nimmo. "It's important for us that he's at the central point of everything we do here for this."

* Samantha Nimmo, vice president of youth collaboration for Z-Cares, is now in her freshman year at Whittier College in Southern California and aims to spread awareness of the foundation's work on campus.

* Mannie and Steve Nimmo have coordinated multiple "Angst" screenings in the Tri-Valley and made Z-Cares grow while holding down careers and managing other responsibilities. He is employed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; she works for the Pleasanton Unified School District.

* Steve, Mannie and Samantha make up most of the Z-Cares executive board members, which also includes Laurie Walker-Whiteland as treasurer. The Board of Directors is comprised of IndieFlix CEO Scilla Andreen, film producer Karin Gornick, PPIE Executive Director Steve McCoy-Thompson, and another Nimmo family member, Ken Nimmo, among several others.

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