Taking Time for a ‘Boot Check’

By Kristin Mackey Contributing Editor


It was a beautiful day in the mountains of Colorado as I headed from Denver to a Colorado Springs Boot Barn where my friend, Julie Mackey (no relation), had asked to meet. I was anticipating an emotional day, knowing we would be talking about the difficult subject of suicide. Julie and I had grown close over the years through a shared bond of grief from the loss of our fathers. Having lost her dad a few years before my dad passed, she was instrumental in helping me navigate my new normal. I had no hesitation broaching an emotional and difficult subject with her, but I had no idea how impactful it would be.

Julie is a devoted employee of the Jae Foundation, a nonprofit that describes itself as bold, inclusive, nimble and generous. The foundation was created with the goal of raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention, and for providing healing for those who have lost loved ones. Julie had hesitated to tell me the details of her job until I “got my boots.” The time had finally come when we were able to make that happen. That day, I walked in, not quite sure what to expect. Two hours later, I left more impacted than I could have imagined. I will forever be grateful for Julie and my “Jae Boots,” while also learning the importance of a “Boot Check.”

To understand the Jae Foundation and the concept of Jae Boots, you first should learn the story of Jae Bing. Jae grew up in picturesque Pinedale, Wyo., a small, close-knit community where everyone seems to know one another and look out for each other. Jae was adopted from South Korea as a baby. His parents, Bob and Carolyn, own The Cowboy Shop, a western store known for having everything a cowboy needs. I learned that Jae was a fun-loving, loyal friend, liked by all who knew him, especially one of his best friends, Jason Vickery.

What really set Jae apart was his devotion to his cowboy boots, which he never took off. His love of boots began at a young age. He wore his boots proudly with jeans, shorts or sweatpants – it was his signature look. Jae was a friend who was always checking in on others and making sure they were good. Tragically, in March of 2016, Jae took his own life at the age of 27. Jae had spoken with his lifelong friend, Jason, multiple times that week, never sharing the pain he was feeling. When he spoke to his mom the night before his death, he seemed like his usual self, with no indication that he was experiencing thoughts of suicide. Jae’s loved ones, like so many who have lost someone to suicide, were devastated and wondered how they could have missed the warning signs.

Jason often wondered if, had he had been more present in his conversations with Jae, could he have changed things. After many months of thinking about what he could do to honor Jae, Jason went to work on creating what would become the Jae Foundation. Many years later, Jason hosted his leadership team in his hometown, giving them an opportunity to experience ranch life.

When the team arrived, they needed to be outfitted in the appropriate apparel, prompting a trip to Jae’s family store. Jason had the opportunity to tell them about how Jae was one of his best friends, to share what a great person he was and to talk about how he had struggled silently with mental health issues. He revealed how Jae’s death had impacted him. Then he had them pick out a pair of boots that spoke to them, any pair they wanted. He bought them each the pair they chose, asking them to think of Jae’s story each time they put them on. That experience led to what would become the Jae Foundation, a way to celebrate Jae’s life and legacy. They would implement a system of “Boot Checks,” an organic, thoughtful way for friends and loved ones to check in with each other.

Depression and suicide are often taboo subjects, especially among tough, hardworking cowboys who come from no-nonsense western roots. The fact is that rural America has the highest rate of suicide. Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, North Dakota and Arkansas are perceived to be “Cowboy Country.” In 2021, they made up the top 10 states (respectively) with the highest incidence of suicide, according to the latest report from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. With isolation and substance abuse being prevalent in these communities, mental health conversations are often avoided. Jason founded the Jae Foundation to remove that stigma and create moments where people, especially tough westerners, could be open and communicate their feelings and vulnerabilities.

After Julie shared Jae’s story with me and the roots of the Jae Foundation, she told me it was time to pick out my Jae Boots, cowboy boots that spoke directly to me. They would be something I could wear proudly. Comfort was key. Feeling comfortable in these boots would make it easier for me to do my Boot Checks – when I’d put on my Jae Boots and think about someone who might need support. It is a reminder to reach out and let them know they are not alone. A Boot Check is the story of your boots, what they mean to you and being open about mental health. Pain is not just broken bones and cuts, it may run much deeper and is often unseen.

If you or someone you love is struggling, there is help. You can reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit 988lifeline.org. For more information about the Jae Foundation, visit their website at jaefoundation.com to learn how they have donated more than 8,500 pairs of boots in Jae Bing’s honor, creating Boot Check moments for people of all ages and backgrounds. If you would like to get involved, please reach out to julie@jaefoundation.com.


Depression and suicide are often taboo subjects, especially among tough, hardworking cowboys who come from no-nonsense western roots.