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In Conversation With ... Taylora Schlosser

Taylora Schlosser

Kentucky School Advocate
September 2023

This Q&A discusses suicide. If you are or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or at 1-800-273-8255.

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Taylora Schlosser is the founder of Rae of Sunshine, a 501(c)3, nonprofit foundation, which seeks to increase access to mental health supports and reduce the stigma around mental health. Schlosser, who served as Marion County’s superintendent, shares her story during Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. To learn more about the foundation, visit raeofsunshineky.org.

Q. You founded Rae of Sunshine in 2019 not long after your 19-year-old daughter, Taylor Rae Nolan, died by suicide while she was a student at the University of Kentucky. Can you tell us about Taylor?

Taylor was my only daughter, born April 28, 1999. She played the piano, was in Beta Club and was a state officer in FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) her junior year. She had tried volleyball, cheerleading and basketball, but what she really loved was speaking and leading so FCCLA was great. At UK, Taylor’s major was integrated strategic communications, and she joined Chi Omega sorority. As a freshman, she was elected to student government. She had an internship with iHeart Radio. She was starting the spring semester of her sophomore year when she died.  

Q. Why did you decide to create the foundation, and what is your mission?

The day after Taylor died, Colton, the oldest of my three sons, said ‘Mama, we’re going to do something, a foundation, a scholarship. We are not going to be ashamed of Taylor.’ He was 22 at the time. We don’t want another family to have to live through a suicide. Three big things we want to accomplish are to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health, increase access and resources and spread positivity and kindness.

Q. Why is the foundation called Rae of Sunshine?

In comments people left at Taylor’s visitation, they said things like ’She smiled at me every day,’ ’She lit up a room when she smiled at me.’ Story after story, people said she was a ray of sunshine. Her middle name is Rae. I wanted something positive and happy. All the shirts we sell have our logo and her hashtag #TAYRAENOL so students can look her up.

Q. Since you formed the foundation, how many schools in Kentucky and beyond have you shared Taylor’s story with?

Taylora Schlosser, former Marion County superintendent, speaks at a Berea Independent staff meeting. Since the foundation’s creation, Schlosser has spoken to more than 62,000 people, telling her daughter Taylor’s story. Photo provided


I’ve traveled over 21,000 miles to about 190 events and I’ve spoken to more than 62,000 people. Most have been kids in schools, but I don’t just visit schools. I’ve worked with hospitals on mental health summits, testified in Frankfort, had tables at community events, spoken at churches and chambers of commerce, and done TV interviews.

Q. Taylor sounds like she’s someone who most young people can relate to. Does that help your audiences understand that anyone can struggle with their mental health?

Taylor was an all-American girl. A beautiful smile, long, blonde hair, pretty clothes, lots of opportunities. When we look at others though, we just see what’s outside. I’ve tried to get across with this foundation that our health typically is not visible on the outside. We have no idea what’s going on inside. By speaking, I don’t want this to just be about Taylor’s tragedy. She had this beautiful smile, and it impacted so many people.

Q. Another aspect of your foundation is SMILE Club. Tell us about them.

SMILE clubs are about students telling us what makes them smile in a school. We look at ways each month to do activities that give children an opportunity to smile. For example, having all the students wear a name tag. Think about how that can change things in a large school where it is hard to know everyone. Or by placing positive notes on everyone’s locker. September is Suicide Prevention Month, but I call it Smile September. I tell people, in my view, if we could smile more, we wouldn’t have to have suicide prevention. People just want to know that others realize they exist, and that they are important.

Q. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to talk about their mental health and seek help?

I think our students are more at ease talking about mental health than maybe our families were. I genuinely believe that this generation of young people will change the stigma. That doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But you know, years ago people would make comments about people’s weight. Now people talk about being healthy and getting in shape.

Back when I was in school, we didn’t talk about mental health. It’s an uncomfortable topic, and when we’re uncomfortable with something, we typically don’t talk about it and we don’t understand it. I hope that as we learn more about what affects mental health, what the triggers are and how to set boundaries, we will be more comfortable having that conversation.

Q. What kind of feedback do you hear from students?

Typically some kids will come up and hug and thank me. Kids will message me privately through Rae of Sunshine’s social media and say, ‘Thank you, I got help because I heard your story.’ Parents have messaged to say that after their child heard me speak, they came home, told their parents about something that was going on and they got help. I’ve had kids tell me, ‘I think about it (suicide) every day, and I want to do it.’ I immediately notify staff. I always tell the schools to have mental health staff on hand and to watch the audience because there will be kids who need to talk to somebody after I speak.

Q. Your talk is called ‘A Second Chance to Smile’. Tell us a little bit about the message behind that title.

I tell the kids that one thing I told my boys is there’s not going to be a day that we don’t grieve, but you are allowed to smile and be happy. I tell students that I wish I could tell them everything is going to be perfect but that there will be some curves. But no matter what, they’re going to get a second chance. For whatever reason, my daughter didn’t think she had a second chance. I tell the kids if you know somebody who feels like they don’t have a second chance to smile or that they don’t think their story is important, tell someone, because I didn’t get that opportunity. Rae of Sunshine is not the fix, but it is an opportunity to tell a story about this beautiful young lady who lost her life to mental health.

Q. In addition to speaking about mental health, your foundation offers scholarships each year for students who want to become mental health professionals. Why is increasing the number of mental health professionals in Kentucky important?

Each of our first three years we gave five $2,000 scholarships. This year, we gave 10 $2,000 scholarships. What we discovered after we lost Taylor is that access to a mental health professional is very limited. If you’re in a crisis, and you can’t see a mental health professional, your options are the emergency room or a crisis center. But sometimes they just need someone to talk to right away, and those folks just don’t exist. I experienced it firsthand with my own children and with Taylor’s friends. Mental health issues can be acute; they can also be long-term. We need mental health professionals to help us decide what that treatment plan looks like short-term or long-term. Every community needs more of them.

Q. You left Marion County Schools in 2021 after serving eight years as superintendent. At the time you said you needed to put your mental health first.

I needed to take my own advice. I had lost my brother to COVID, and I had lots of obligations and responsibilities. I mean, there’s only so much one person can take. My son was a senior, and it gave me the opportunity to do some things I’d never had the opportunity to do. And my boys needed their mama.

Q. How can school board members ensure that their districts are making the mental health of students, teachers and administrators a priority?

Look at the resources available regarding mental health. What kinds of opportunities, presentations and training are being provided for staff and students? When I was in the district, we had all kinds of mental health agencies in the schools. We had staff members who served as a social emotional point of contact. We did trainings. We must approach mental health in a variety of ways. We need to talk to leadership and ask what they need. From what I’ve seen in my travels, I think the districts in Kentucky get that our kids need support in this area.  

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