Issue 1: Muse - The Ben Raemers Foundation

Hailing from Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, Ben Raemers unassumingly stumbled upon skateboarding during his formative years, and displayed something of an otherworldly ability for it from the outset. Under the watchful eye of father figure turned team manager Mark Munson, Ben found himself representing a grip of sponsors with significant national media coverage under his belt by the time he’d left school.

With his GCSEs out of the way and the relative freedom of young adulthood bestowed upon him, Ben began to split his time between Essex and California, as he gradually embedded himself in the American skateboard industry. Over the years that followed, Ben’s genuinely ballistic skateboarding, coupled with his effervescent and lovable personality, saw his profile around the world skyrocket. The San Jose based Enjoi Skateboards elevated him to professional status during 2014, he earned himself three covers of the internationally revered Thrasher Magazine, and scored notable appearances in no shortage of big name video productions. For all intents and purposes, the unassuming lad from Essex had ‘made it’; but whilst all of these things were taking place, beneath the surface he was quietly struggling.

When Ben took his own life on May 14th 2019, aged only 28, the news of his passing sent shockwaves through the global skateboard community. It was a loss of catastrophic proportions, but in the days immediately following Ben’s death, his sister Lucy began to hatch a plan to ensure that no other skateboarder would feel the need to suffer in silence the same way her brother had.

Within a handful of months, The Ben Raemers Foundation was formed.

Run by a collection of Ben’s family and friends, The Ben Raemers Foundation is striving to bring mental health issues and suicide awareness to the forefront of the wider skateboarding community. In the short time since its inauguration, the Foundation has hosted training seminars and groundbreaking events that have done just that.

In October 2020, Lucy kindly took some time out of her schedule to talk to us at length about the Foundation, mental health, skateboarding, and her memories of Ben.

Portrait by Leo Sharp, 2017.

OK Lucy, can you kindly introduce yourself please?

My name is Lucy Raemers and I am one of the co-founders of The Ben Raemers Foundation.

Where in the world were you born and raised?

I was born in Colchester, Essex, but I was raised just down the road, in the wonderful seaside town of Walton-on the-Naze.

What are your earliest memories of Ben? I can imagine that your relationship as children was kind of…’rocky’.

It was horrendous, Rye! It was a really turbulent relationship. We’re both Scorpios, both the same star sign, and we are literally identical with our tempers, our fiery personalities. We’d be in a room together and we’d be best mates, or it would literally be World War 3. We were fighting every other day, but underneath that there was a real undeniable love that we had for each other. It was massively rocky when we were kids, but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

Ben picked up skateboarding at a young age and definitely showed a natural flare for it early on. Have you got any good memories from those early days skating around Walton? And how did your own personal voyage into skateboarding go?

Oh my God, I have some great memories of Ben from back then! He obviously picked a skateboard up and was just naturally incredible at it. We were inseparable and he really wanted to get me into skateboarding too, so I bought one of my first skateboards from Woolworths and we spent the summer just skating Walton-on-the-Naze skatepark together. It was really sweet; I think he really enjoyed having me around and trying to teach me things. Needless to say I don’t think I quite had the skillset that he did!

As the years went by and Ben gradually left Essex, for America first, and later London, were you aware of the status that he’d built up within the skateboard community? Did you have any inkling of just how famous he had become?

To be totally honest Rye, I had no idea. When Ben moved to Ipswich from Walton, I saw him a little bit, then he moved to America and we’d speak over Skype and stuff, but none of us as a family really knew. We had Ben as our brother, our cousin. I think he liked that when he was around his family, he wasn’t this big skateboarder.

When he got so well known, that was something he couldn’t cope with. I never really knew just how known he was until I’d go to London to see him. We’d go on nights out and he’d get stopped in the street. People would be like, “oh my God, it’s Ben Raemers! Do you mind if we get a picture?” We’d walk off after and he’d be like, “Luce, I hate it.” It wasn’t until then that I thought, “Christ, he’s pretty well known.” He never let on to us, and he never had the ego that could have gone along with being that famous in skating either.

Moving on to the establishing of the Foundation, how soon after Ben’s passing was the idea formed? And how quickly did it progress?

The day after Ben died, I said to my two brothers (Ollie and James) that we needed to start a charity to continue Ben’s legacy. James was keen, but Ollie said it was going to be really hard emotionally, but for me, the idea gave me a real push; I needed to put my energy into creating something. From then, Ben’s good friend Jack Brooks created a Go Fund Me page in order to raise money for a memorial bench to sit at Victoria Park. Ben’s best mate Rob (Mathieson) also designed t-shirts to raise money for the funeral. So many people were so generous with their donations, there was so much money left over and it was clear after losing Ben the skateboarding community was wanting a change, which led to the idea of forming the Foundation.

Rob spoke to his friend Susie (Crome), who has worked in the charity sector for quite some time; she helped us realise it was actually something we could set up, and it went from there! We launched The Ben Raemers Foundation on October 10th 2019, which is World Mental Health Day. So it all came together in a matter of months, which is pretty impressive.

Who is involved behind the scenes at the Foundation? Do you each have defined roles? How does it work?

Susie is what you’d call the chair. She is a lot of the brains behind it; she does a lot of the paperwork, she got us our charity number, and she’s amazing with all of the logistical stuff.

Then we’ve got Rob who is Ben’s best friend. Rob has been doing all of our animations and running the Instagram.

Then we’ve got my cousin Chess (Francesca Bortoli). She does the CRM stuff, she’s helped a lot with the website design, and she massively supports me, keeps me afloat. She represents the family as well.

Then there’s myself. I guess the idea for the Foundation slightly stemmed from me, I talk at events and I’m the face of the Foundation I suppose.

It works really well; we all bring something completely different to the table, which is great because as a team I think we need that.

Ben, backside lipslide in Essex, 2009.

Prior to Ben’s death and the establishing of the Foundation, did any of you apart from Susie have any experience of working with charities, or working within mental health?

I literally had none; the charity side of things was a completely new area for me. As far as life experience goes, I’ve definitely got an understanding of mental health issues. My mum’s really struggled with her mental health, and seeing Ben’s mental health deteriorate too, I tried to help them both.

I’ve actually just gone back to studying; I’m doing a counselling qualification, so in a few months time I will be able to say that I am qualified in that sector, but when we started the Foundation, we didn’t have any experience really.

It was a huge learning curve for us all, but I think sometimes it’s best to not go into things too clued up. If I’d have had too much of an insight into how things would be - because you never really have a break from it, and my life is now essentially driven by the Foundation and Ben - I would have probably been a bit like, “oh Christ, this is going to be tough”. I didn’t have that insight, and I was driven to make a change, so that really helped.

On June 21st 2019, Slam City Skates dedicated their annual Go Skateboarding Day event to Ben, hosting a huge gathering at Victoria Park. That was the first real public celebration of Ben with an emphasis on mental health. What was your involvement in that day, and how was it for you?

That was shortly after me, Rob and Susie had our first chats about launching the Foundation. When I was at Vicky Park I was just talking to people really, getting the word out there about what we had planned. I was talking to loads of different people about their memories of Ben, their experiences, and getting people excited about the Foundation. It was an amazing day.

How would you describe the reaction to the Foundation’s launch in 2019?

That was insane! October 10th 2019 was the day we launched the Instagram account and website holding page, and we pretty much went viral. It was so overwhelming having Ben’s sponsors and the whole skateboard community getting behind us like that, and sharing our account. Seeing Ben’s silhouette everywhere was mind-blowing, and people saying, “get behind this, this is an amazing thing that is happening.” It really hit home what an impact Ben made, and what a difference we can now make.

The Foundation launched with a skate jam and party at Victoria Park in October 2019. Can you tell us about that day please?

For the launch we had Palace, Supreme, Enjoi, Converse, Slam City, Volcom, Independent Trucks and OJ Wheels all donate prizes to us, so we put on a skate jam at Vicky Park which was mainly for young kids. We had Farris (Hassen) on the mic, and every time someone did an amazing trick, they’d come up and get a raffle ticket that they then swapped for a prize.

In the evening we hired out the conservatory area of People’s Park Tavern, which is on the edge of Vicky Park. We raffled off the rest of the prizes, and Rob made a really lovely video of Ben that was projected onto a screen. I had a few too many ciders and was on the microphone, really hyping the crowd up for the raffle. There’s nothing worse than having someone reading out raffle numbers, like, “two ducks, 22”, so I was trying to be a real hype woman (laughs). Then we had Shelley (Jones), Farris and Jin (Shimizu) DJing after. We launched the Foundation in true Ben style!

Raemers Skateaprk at Victoria Park, London, during Slam City Skates' Go Skateboarding Day 2019 event. Photo: Wig Worland.

Moving on to the SMiLe films, I think it’s fair to say that they put mental health to the forefront like nothing that has really happened in skateboarding before. Inviting skateboarders to a cinema to watch two films with known professionals purely talking about mental health, and then having a Q+A session afterwards was a serious first. How did the opportunity to work on those films with Nick Jensen and Aaron Herrington come about?

The SMiLe films were all Rob’s idea. The name SMiLe came from a tattoo that that Horsey (Scott Walker) did on Ben’s arm. He had some horrendous tattoos, but SMiLe was a real iconic one. We thought as a name it worked really well, and you can’t ignore the irony of it, can you? He had the word SMiLe tattooed on him, yet we all know now what he was battling.

We thought we could do films based around skateboarders talking out about mental health. Nick and Aaron are amazing skaters, they both knew Ben, so Rob said he’d put the feelers out, and the guys were more than happy to get involved.

Talking about mental health anyway is difficult, but then doing it in front of a camera knowing that it’s going to go out to thousands of people is really tough.

The strength and courage those guys had to do the Q+A after the screenings was incredible; I’m in complete awe of them. Nick and Aaron are incredible for doing that, and raising awareness in such a way.

You’ve got the beauty of being kind of close to skateboarding through your relationship with Ben, but – prior to establishing the Foundation - you were also far enough removed from it that I’d imagine you could see where some of the issues lay. From your perspective, where was skateboarding going wrong when it came to mental health?

I think the problem with skateboarding is very much the lifestyle of going on skate trips, drinking loads of booze…it can almost be a bit rock and roll. If you’re going on trips, skating and boozing all day, unfortunately some people are going to fall into bad traps.

There’s no structure at a professional level, and I think that’s where a lot of things went wrong with Ben. He was getting paid pretty well in a job that has no structure to it, and when that happens, reality becomes a bit of a strange place. Teenagers who are naturally gifted at something like skateboarding need someone to sit them down and say, “this is what you’re getting paid a month, this is what tax is, you should do this, and you should be doing this.” There needs to be more support with next steps in life, and support in that time in life, especially when people are away on trips. There needs to be down time, and people need to keep an eye on each other. Through the Foundation, we’re now doing mental health and suicide awareness training with team managers, so things are changing.

You recently set up the @sayitsoktonotbeok Instagram diary, which I guess can be best described as a window into your journey through grief. Can you tell us about where the idea came from to set up that account?

My personal Instagram account is a private one; there’s a lot of rubbish on there. But from time to time something would come to me, I’d have a memory and I’d do a bit of writing. The response to those posts was always incredible. People were saying that they’d been missing Ben, the post made them smile, or that they were going through grief themselves and what I had written had helped. I thought, “OK I need to do this bigger”, so I paid for a blog and registered a new Instagram page.

Since then I’ve been taking pictures of things that I want to talk about, things that might be a reminder of something, then writing about them. I’ve been really open and honest, so reading messages from people saying that it has helped them is the best thing ever.

After you lose someone, at first you have all these people trying to help you, which is amazing, but actually it’s the long-term effects of grief that are the real killer. I’ve had days where I’ve gone through a different wave of grief and I didn’t know what to do with myself, and what’s helped me has been talking out and making other people aware. We need to normalise grieving; it’s such a hidden and taboo subject where people think you can’t talk out, and heaven forbid you can’t say that you’re feeling wobbly or anything because someone is going to say, “oh is she going to do the same thing?” Actually, if you talk and open up about it, it allows someone else to say, “you know what, I’ve been feeling really similar.”

Despite lockdown, the Foundation has managed to make a start in getting people who work within the skateboard industry training, so that they’re better equipped at helping those who might be suffering with their mental health, or contemplating suicide. How did you go about identifying the right course for the skateboarding community? What has the feedback being like from the people who partook?

We’ve gone through Grassroots and have an amazing lady called Chris who does the training for us. She’s been incredible. There’s a short course called Suicide First Aid that is about three hours long, and we’ve now done that with different groups of team managers and employees from skate shops. The response from the sessions has been incredible.

It’s been kind of hard as well. You feel really empowered after the course because you’ve got these tools, and you feel like you can make a difference, but then it’s a bit ‘Catch 22’. The guys on the courses so far have all been friends of Ben’s, and people have said, “I wish we’d have known all of this sooner.” But you can’t help someone unless they want to help themselves, which is something that we’ve all been trying to get our heads around too.

Everyone is really excited on the idea that change is happening, so this is just the start. We’re intending on carrying on doing as much training as possible for people.

Broyd frontside inverts for Raemers, Go Skateboarding Day 2019. Photo: Wig Worland.

Do you feel that the attitude towards mental health issues within the skateboarding community have altered much over the course of the last 18 months?

I think it definitely has. Since we lost Ben, people are opening up a lot more about how they’re feeling. The people closest to Ben, we knew personally that he was really bloody struggling, but people that were fans of Ben’s skateboarding, or didn’t know him personally, they just saw this really happy go lucky guy. That’s the thing with mental health; you can’t see it. At face value, you look at pictures or videos of Ben skateboarding and he looks like he was always having the best time, so when he died I definitely think it gave the skate community a real shake. Everyone wants to be there for each other, and everyone is normalising talking about mental health.

If somebody reading this feels like their mental health might not be great, or something is troubling them and they are struggling to open up about it, what advice would you give them?

I’ve got a few tips to give. There’s an app by Grassroots called Stay Alive, which is amazing to have on your phone. It’s like a little logbook for you to keep. It has all sorts of information on there, and you can fill it with pictures. If you are feeling really low, it will reiterate to you just how loved you are.

Crisis and Samaritans, those are two numbers that you should definitely have in your phone too. Use the Shout crisis text line by texting the word ‘SHOUT’ to 85258, or call the Samaritans on 116 123. They’re 24 hours and there’s someone on the end of the phone that you don’t know. A lot of the time people find it easier opening up to someone who isn’t a family member or a friend.

Always remember that if you feel like your friends and family might judge you for how you’re feeling, they absolutely won’t. Always reach out, and never feel embarrassed or annoyed with yourself for not feeling OK. We’re human beings and there is no way we are all wired to be constantly walking on cloud nine, being happy as Larry. Life is bloody tough. Just know there’s always someone there for you, and you are so loved. My inbox is always open to anybody who is struggling. Sometimes it’s better to type how you’re feeling instead of trying to vocalise it over the phone.

Similarly, if somebody were having concerns about someone they know, what would you like to say to them?

I really struggled knowing that Ben was suffering because I felt like I didn’t want to put him in a corner. Ben was making it quite clear at one point that he was feeling suicidal, but the next day he wouldn’t speak about it. I didn’t want to embarrass him or make him feel uncomfortable, so I just didn’t want to ask him again. But if you have concerns there for someone that you skate with, don’t be afraid to turn around and ask them, “I’ve noticed you’re feeling a certain way, how are you? Are you OK?”

And don’t be afraid of the word ‘suicide’. I think it still has that thing attached to it where we’re going to mention the word ‘suicide’ and someone is going to go away and try kill themselves. We’ve learnt in our training, that’s not how it works. No one ever died from being asked, “are you OK?”

Sometimes it might be about how we’re feeling; it might make us feel uncomfortable to ask difficult questions, but Jesus Christ, you’d want to feel uncomfortable a million times over if it meant making sure a loved one or a friend was safe.

Lucy Raemers at Raemers Skatepark, Victoria Park, October 2020. Photo: Matt Law.

What is the Foundation working on at the moment? Have you got anything in the pipeline that you’re able to talk about?

We have! More training is going to be happening, because that is such a positive thing. We’ve got something incredible happening on Ben’s anniversary; something is coming out, but I can’t say what at the moment. This will be out by then, but on Ben’s birthday – November 4th – we’re releasing some boards with Enjoi too. Because of COVID we’re not sure what can happen events wise, but our plan is to do some more SMiLe films, because they’re just amazing for anyone to watch and take something away from.

Out of everything that the Foundation has accomplished so far, what would you say you are the most proud of?

Blimey! Do you know what? It’s difficult because I’m so proud of everything. The thing I’m most proud of is keeping Ben’s legacy alive. We lost Ben to suicide, which is one of the most tragic ways that somebody can go, and yet we’ve got his name in bright lights, helping to save lives. That’s got to be the thing that I’m the most proud of. I’m so proud of Rob, Susie and Chess, and I’m proud that we’ve got Benny shining bright.

Lastly, everyone loves a good Ben anecdote. What’s the last thing you thought about of Ben that had you smiling to yourself?

I could go on for days about stories about Ben and the things he did that make me laugh. But I’ve got to say I’ll go with one from when we were younger.

Ben had it in his head that he wanted to make gingerbread men. He was really set on the idea, but obviously us being tiny, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. So he cut gingerbread men shapes out of paper. The next thing you know, he put them in the toaster, the toaster set alight and he nearly burnt our house down (laughing). We couldn’t get our heads around why the hell these white bits of paper didn’t turn into golden gingerbread men! That’s something we’d look back on and definitely laugh about together; that’s one of the funniest memories from my childhood.

Follow The Ben Raemers Foundation - @thebenraemersfoundation

Follow Lucy Raemers - @sayitsoktonotbeok