Zach Liberatore was studying to become a therapist. A sixth-year health and human services major at UB, Liberatore found his passion in counseling fellow students and late-night intramural basketball games in the Alumni Arena basement triple-gym.
But Liberatore was also dealing with his own demons: tormented by compulsive thoughts brought about by OCD, stints at six short-term and six long-term in-patient facilities in Western New York and all over the country and other mental health challenges.
On Sept. 30, 2020, Liberatore overdosed on Opana. Two days later, he died.
Despite Liberatore’s mental health struggles, he was determined to continue his studies, even securing a spot on the dean’s list despite two separate in-patient visits that semester.
“I always told him he was so, so strong and brave to keep having to leave the program,” Liberatore’s mother, Jennifer, told The Spectrum. “He always felt a little defeated doing that, you know, stopping in the middle of a semester and going away and coming back and starting over, but he did it over and over and over.”
After Zach’s death, Jennifer learned just how much of an impact her son had made on the lives of others. In the months following, she regularly received calls from kids across the country who told her about how helpful Zach was to them when they met at treatment facilities. But amid the flurry of kind messages and sentiments, the thought of starting a foundation in his name was never on Jennifer’s mind.
Now, she sits on the board of the Zach Liberatore Foundation.
“I actually did the eulogy at Zach's funeral, and one of his closest friends, Sam Palisano, happened to write this beautiful piece about him, describing him perfectly. And I said, ‘Would you read it,’ and he said, ‘I’d rather not but you could read it,’” Jennifer said. “So I read this excerpt that he wrote in my eulogy, in which he said we should set up a foundation in Zach’s name to help kids who struggle the way he did. Nothing would make him happier. So actually, when I read his words in my eulogy, it kind of put it out there. Literally like two hours later, people were coming up to us saying, ‘I want to help, I want to help.’”
The Zach Liberatore Foundation works to raise awareness for mental health and empower families of children who struggle with OCD. The foundation aims to continue Zach’s legacy by providing “education, public awareness and support to young adults and families affected by mental health challenges,” according to its website. It is run by Zach’s parents, family members and other community members close to his family and is funded by charitable donations from the community and those raised at their first event, Zachtoberfest
Zachtoberfest took place on Oct. 28 at Buffalo RiverWorks and raised approximately $85,000 — nearly three times the initial goal of $30,000. The funds will go to the Child Psychiatry Clinic and OCD program at Oishei Children’s Hospital, where Zach received much of his treatment. Eight hundred guests purchased tickets for raffle baskets at silent auction.
This overwhelming community support made the foundation’s breakout event a major success, the family says. Despite being open to the public, Jennifer says everyone at the event seemed to have a personal connection to Zach or his family. Jennifer made it a point of greeting all of them personally at the door.
“I [volunteered] to honor Zach’s memory and to help the family. He was such a great kid and they’re such a great family I just wanted to help anyway I could,” Wendy Blackman, an event volunteer said.
The outpouring of support came as a surprise to Jennifer.
“I thought it was gonna be like this little fire hall; pizza, maybe a cash box at the door selling tickets,” Jennifer said. “This kind of spiraled into this huge event and took on a life of its own, but it’s kind of a testament to how loud Zach was.”
This is just the start for the Zach Liberatore Foundation. While there are no other events currently in the works, Jennifer is exploring other avenues to help children and families who are fighting the same battles Zach did to cover their financial costs.
“We know how expensive costs can be, particularly if someone has a higher level of care,” Jennifer said. “And even if insurance covers it, the other costs are huge. I mean for some families, the travel cost for the child and the family to go with [is a lot].”
So despite the irreplaceable, devastating loss of a son, brother, student and friend, the Zach Liberatore Foundation is a glimmer of hope for children struggling with mental health in the Western New York community. Zach’s story is a reminder to the UB community that no matter how insignificant someone may feel, there are always people who will feel the effects of their absence; way more people than they would think.
We encourage students to prioritize their mental health. You are never alone. If you are in crisis, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255 or UB Counseling Services, at 716-645-2720.
Julie Frey contributed to the reporting.
Natalie Doller is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org