Tessitore 6182

John Tessitore

For 10 years, Legends Day has honored the memory of John Cleaver Kelly, an Irvington resident who was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as a seventh-grader and, despite attempts at treatment, took his own life in March 2011, at age 24.

Until last year, when a virtual event was held due to the pandemic, Legends Day was a fundraising softball tournament. On Saturday, July 31, Legends Day will return, now featuring an assortment of activities and relocated from Scenic Hudson Park in Irvington to Memorial Park in Dobbs Ferry. Kelly attended Dobbs Ferry schools through eighth grade.

Legends Day benefits the JCK Foundation, which was founded by John Tessitore, a 31-year-old Dobbs Ferry native with OCD who looked up to Kelly as a mentor. The foundation’s stated mission is to work with communities and school to improve mental wellness and resilience among youth.

Holding the event at Memorial Park and forgoing softball is intended to accommodate families with young children, Tessitore said. “It’s hard for parents with young kids to sit around for 2 hours and make the kids watch softball. This is a nice middle ground.” 

Leading up to Legends Day, the JCK Foundation will be represented  at  TBT (The Basketball Tournament) starting on Saturday, July 17. In this annual summer event, 64 teams of non-NBA professional players compete for $1 million. The foundation’s assigned team, Mental Toughness, is the first to represent a mental health organization. Their first game will be on ESPN3 at 3 p.m., from Wichita, Kan. For Tessitore, who formerly worked for ESPN and CBS Sports, the tournament is about gaining national exposure for the foundation. 

Tessitore was also diagnosed with OCD in seventh grade. Kelly, he said, “helped me feel so safe, valued, and loved. That same level of comfort and support is what we try to provide to every student, faculty member, parent, and person we impact in our programs and inside the foundation. We want people to feel accepted for who they are and understand that they can live a happy, healthy, and inspired life even while suffering from a mental illness… and no one is ever alone.”

Kelly’s friends pulled together the first Legends Day two weeks after his death, gathering to play softball in his memory. Last year, despite settling for a virtual format that included teams playing “Rock, paper, scissors” and hosting a dance party with streamed music, the foundation raised $27,000. This year’s goal is $35,000.

Starting at 2 p.m., participants of any age can compete in a home run derby, cornhole, and knockout. In one particular challenge, John Kelly’s father, Dr. Stephen Kelly, 71, will compete in the basketball game of HORSE against Santo Provenzano, a 2001 Dobbs Ferry High School graduate who made a name for himself as the most prolific scorer among men’s basketball players at Hood College.

“Rock, paper, scissors” will be a team event, played in the “bracketed” mode of professional sports, and filmed. 

Throughout Legends Day, which ends at 8 p.m., an ice cream truck, pizza, and alcohol will be available, and anyone who plays on a team will receive a “Legends” T-shirt.

In a 22-minute film, “Heroes Get Remembered But Legends Never Die,” on the JCK website, Tessitore tells Kelly’s story, and provides insight into OCD through interviews with Kelly’s parents, Stephen and Janet, and friends, with excerpts from Kelly’s journals. The documentary won three awards at the 2012 Cinefest Film Festival in Fairfield, Conn.

Tessitore is as passionate about his work with the foundation as Kelly, a Regis High School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in 2008, was as an adult in his work for nonprofit organizations and as a loyal, loving friend to his schoolmates.

The JCK Foundation has presented workshops at more than 40 schools, including in Ardsley, Dobbs Ferry, and Irvington. Tessitore envisions starting Legends Clubs at schools, partnering with mental health associations, and youth mental health projects.

“We see ourselves as a catalyst,” Tessitore elaborated. “We try to make mental health approachable… so the stigma and shame starts to break down.” 

The foundation’s work emphasizes a holistic approach: addressing mental health issues, understanding, and communication about them with students, teachers, and parents. Its representatives have worked with school psychologists, social workers, faculty, and other staff members, presenting programs in health classes and at wellness fairs. 

Tessitore wants to present more parent workshops. “One of the biggest pieces of feedback we get is, ‘How do I have a conversation with parents about this?’” he said.

In Tessitore’s filmed interviews with Kelly’s friends and families, the words “heart,” “caring,” “compassionate,” and “genuine” were most often used. Stephen Kelly’s speech to those at the first Legends Day expresses why his son’s impact continues: “You’re really his legacy. You’re really the ones that carry him on… I can see his presence in all of you.”

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