Ron Holgado, Columbus’ parachute kid, hopes to start dialogue on mental health

Roochute participants — ranging from OSU students of different backgrounds to young professionals — run underneath the parachute.

For Ron Holgado, creator of the “Roochute,” a 45-foot parachute used to bring people together to spread positivity and happiness, life has always been about helping others.

Holgado carries and unpacks the Roochute — an uplifting explosion of bright colors — all around Columbus, bringing it to life at different parks, concerts and festivals, hoping to bring smiles to people’s faces and to re-create the giddy feelings of childhood gym class.

At a recent Roochute event (the first event of 2016), bystanders watched curiously as the parachute was unfolded onto a volleyball court.

Athletes from nearby courts dropped what they were doing for a moment to rush over and pick up part of the parachute. What was originally a group of five or six quickly grew into about 20 — many of them strangers turned friends — from all different academic and cultural backgrounds.

Ron Holgado, Westerville resident and creator of the Roochute.

“Every time I do one of these activities, I just talk about living in the moment and just really enjoying what life has to offer,” Holgado, a nursing assistant at the James Cancer Hospital, explained during the event at Ohio State’s bustling Recreation & Physical Activity Center (RPAC). “I just really try to harp on the fragility of life and how quickly it can be taken away.”

The idea took off for Holgado, a Westerville resident, while participating in vipassana, a 10-day silent period of meditation during which he hoped to find direction in life.

“When I did that, I learned a lot about myself, and then all I could really think about is this parachute,” he recalled. “I had this idea before vipassana … and then all the sudden when you’re there for 18 hours a day … your mind races, and all I could really think about is what type of impact this parachute can have on people.”

That was in April 2014.

The Roochute debuted two months later in June 2014 at Bonnaroo, the annual four-day music festival in Tennessee known for its themes of acceptance and openness (hence, the name).

“[Bonnaroo] was the best environment for something like this. I feel like it’s very well receptive with the community there,” he said. “It’s very outlandish and pretty radical to see someone take a parachute out, but I think the people of Bonnaroo are really open to something like that.

“And with my intent of wanting to see people happy and really bringing people together, they were the best demographic of people to spread my message.”

A growing movement

Two years later, the Roochute now has more than 5,000 followers on Instagram and has been featured in Rolling Stone.

That’s when he knew the parachute could take off: “Just for someone that I’ve never met before to just take a picture of it and seeing this thing that I created in a major syndicated publication was very humbling.”

The original message of positivity and happiness, while still holding true, eventually evolved into more — a conversation about mental health awareness.

“If I have this giant parachute, what more can I do to make a better impact?” he said while waving a familiar face over to his table to join in the Roochute event. “‘I have all these people’s attention, let’s put a message to it.’ And then slowly it started to evolve.”

“I have all these people, say 15, 20 even 30 people at a time, I want to leave them feeling better but also leave them with a call to action. And I thought mental health is the biggest issue that we don’t talk about. There’s a huge stigma to it, and I’d want to use the power of this parachute to start the conversation. ‘Starting the conversation,’ what does that mean? That’s what I’m working with right now, I’m talking to mental health professionals, talking to psychiatrists and trying to see what their best advice is, and I want to be the bridge between the clinical and social aspect and bring it to the people.”

For Columbus native Nate F., who has participated in numerous Roochute events including the most recent, the idea of breaking the stigma attached to mental health is personal.

“I’m someone who’s really struggled with mental illness throughout most of my life, and so the message of encouraging positivity, seeking mental help, just really connects with me on a very deep level, and it’s a cause that I will promote and push and do what I can to help anyone who needs it,” Nate, who asked that his last name be abbreviated because of the stigma, said.

“And with the Roochute, every time I’ve seen it come out is just the smiles. No matter what type of day it is or whatever mood someone’s in, they see this parachute come out and they just go instantly back to like a very happy childhood moment and just live in the moment and are just at peace with themselves and are happy.”

Appreciating the important things

Working in the cardiothoracic ICU at the time of the Roochute’s debut, Holgado said he has learned how short life can be.

“I’ve seen 18-year-old kids get open heart surgery and die. I’ve seen 70/80-year-olds make it through life-threatening surgery and live,” he said. “Through that, it really made me appreciate the time we have here. I witnessed firsthand the appreciation these patients had for life.”

In terms of his own challenging moments, Holgado said there was a time where he had little money to his name but learned to appreciate the non-material things in life.

“And I realized that surrounding myself with positive people ultimately gave me a positive outlook on life,” he added.

Future goals

Now that he has built the Roochute brand for two years in America’s ‘test city,’ Holgado said it’s time to “set it free,” and he hopes to this year take it on a cross-country tour with a new website launching in spring of 2016.

“It’s been incubating here in Columbus, and now I want to spread the message to these major music festivals,” he passionately explained. “Why music festivals? Because it’s the easiest way to get people going and moving, and there’s really something about the energy and atmosphere. When you have a parachute in front of live music, people just go nuts and love it.”

Eventually, he hopes to take the Roochute international, finding ambassadors to take a parachute of their own to promote positivity and happiness in their own ways.

As for how he’d like to tie the Roochute into his full-time job, Holgado said this summer he hopes to work with the James’ administration to see the parachute debut at the 21-story, glass hospital.

“On one side, there’s a mini park that can be overseen, and one day we’re planning a flash mob, and at the very end of this flash mob is the opening up of the parachute, and on it would be a very inspiring hopeful message,” he said. “We hope that all the patients can look outside the window and see this message and really know that people are thinking of them outside the hospital.”

To learn more about the Roochute and its future appearances, reach out by email here. To learn more about mental health and how to help people with mental illness, learn about Mental Health First Aid.

Ron Holgado’s story is #48 at Test City, U.S.A. which was created by CivicHacks in 2014 to tell interesting, authentic stories about the people in Columbus, Ohio. As America’s ‘Test Market,’ every major industry tests and refines their products in Columbus before scaling to other markets. We find it endearing that we represent America in every way. Our slogan is ‘A tiny big city with a story worth telling.’

The author, Katie Perkowski, is an internationally experienced storyteller who has written about local Kentucky politics, politics on Capitol Hill, European and US monetary policy and economics, and the refugee crisis in Europe. She was the managing editor of Test City, U.S.A. before moving to New York City.