Stephen Marks can still hear the thumping of dirt on his son’s coffin.
It was Jan. 4, 2015. Noah, who had long struggled with his mental health, had died by suicide three days earlier. He was 15.
Most of the funeral was a “blur” for Stephen Marks, but the drum of dirt on the coffin lid struck sudden clarity. He had a new mission: No other parent should ever have to see their child die from suicide.
“It was just this sound that I felt, ‘This is not what a parent needs to hear,’ ” he said in an interview last week. “So — it’s just not going to happen. I’m not going to let this happen, this is what’s going to drive me.”
Over the past three years, the Markses have done their best to keep that promise.
The family Noah left behind — Stephen, his wife Janna and son Eli, now 23 — started a foundation that works to end the stigma surrounding mental health, and funds programs that support families whose children suffer from mental illness. It’s called the Orange Wednesday Foundation, named after Noah’s tradition of wearing orange pants on Wednesdays, begun when he and a few high school friends coincidentally all wore orange pants on the same day — a Wednesday.
The foundation’s motto is “Talk about it” — something Noah never wanted to do.
The Markses, who run a local bike and Segway tour and rental company, Bike and Roll DC, are also working to end the stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace. The two revolutionized the way Bike and Roll deals with mental health issues. Employees are explicitly encouraged to discuss mental illness; it’s now always brought up as part of the onboarding process.
Mental health days are granted without question. And on Wednesdays, everyone wears special orange T-shirts — in part to honor Noah, in part with the aim of kick-starting needed conversations. The company, which the Markses have owned since 2002, has up to 100 employees, depending on the season.
Mental health experts say the Markses’ initiatives are rare, possibly unprecedented, and that research shows these kind of measures improve and even save employees’ lives. Longtime Bike and Roll staffers say they’ve found a family that accepts them for who they are.
“We understand people go through stuff in life, and as a business you have people you’re hiring, people who work for you — it kind of gives you a different perspective, you know, things happen in people’s lives,” Janna said. “Yes, you have to run a business, but first and foremost, let’s make sure people are okay.”
‘A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’
Noah was exceptionally bright, his parents said, a stellar student who quested for perfection not only in his academics at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County but also in his many extracurriculars — art, poetry, theater.
Noah’s perfectionism extended to his wardrobe. He was known at school for dressing “fancy,” Stephen Marks said, donning button-down shirts and dress pants and his trademark bow-tie.
“It was just the type of person he was; everything he did needed to look good,” Eli Marks said. He recalled how his brother had hesitated to upgrade from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 5 because he loved the way his phone case looked. Noah particularly loved its inscription: “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”
In one of the last conversations Janna Marks ever had with her son, he told her he wanted to pursue a career on the stage. Ever practical, Noah acknowledged it might be difficult to make money as an actor and said he’d also consider becoming a teacher.
She suspects her son could have made it. Despite his young age, Noah had been fast-tracked through Walter Johnson’s theater program, earning parts — like the Rev. Samuel Parris in the play “The Crucible” — that were a big deal for a sophomore.
To honor Noah’s passion, the Orange Wednesday Foundation funds community arts projects and awards scholarships to high school graduates who plan to study the arts in college. It also offers grants to mental health programs that involve the arts.
Eli Marks said this aspect of the foundation’s work helped him “stay connected” to the arts — and to Noah.
Janna Marks said the foundation’s work has helped her feel close to Noah’s disease. This, too, was a part of her son.
The family never got a formal diagnosis, but Noah was likely bipolar, she said. He struggled with mood swings, had trouble sleeping and suffered psychotic episodes. He cut himself in elementary school and was hospitalized twice before dying from injuries sustained by jumping off a pedestrian bridge over a highway on New Year’s Eve 2015, a Wednesday. He wore his orange pants and his bow tie.
Noah never wanted to talk about his illness. The hospitals didn’t provide much guidance, either, the Markses said — and no one ever mentioned suicide or warned the family that was a possibility. Learning about bipolar disorder, discussing it out loud, helping other families understand and treat their children before it’s too late — that’s how Janna Marks “connects” with her son now.
The foundation’s work recalls Noah’s life in another way, too.
Even in the midst of his own struggles, Noah tried to help others. He maintained an active account on Ask.fm, the anonymous question-and-answer site that lets anyone ask anything.
There are also advice seekers. In one of the final posts Noah ever answered, a user asked what to do when “I feel so alone in this s— world.”
“Stop feeling alone and start watching that 70s show,” Noah wrote in reply. “It’s a s— world, but we’ve all gotta bear the stink. Find me if you can, and talk to me? :)”
Reminders of Noah are everywhere at Bike and Roll’s headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza.
He’s in the orange mementos scattered around his father’s desk. He’s in the shrine taped to a wall of his aunt Nikki Marks’s office, where she runs the human resources department and handles finances as the company’s business manager. The shrine features Noah’s beloved phone case as well as one roll of Smarties — still unwrapped and uneaten — he once gave his aunt as a surprise treat.
He’s in the orange bracelets his parents wear, and he’s in the necklace his brother — who is working at Bike and Roll this summer — never takes off. The necklace, once Noah’s, bears a Hebrew letter meaning “life.” He’s in his father’s two tattoos, one of which (wrist) spells his name and one of which (shoulder) includes an exact replica of the phone case.
He’s there in less tangible ways, too.
He’s there every time Nikki Marks on-boards a new employee. After Noah passed, she initiated an updated system: She tells every fresh staffer about her nephew and about the Orange Wednesday Foundation. She tells them the foundation’s goal is to lift the stigma surrounding mental illness in part by talking about it. She says her door is always open.
“I have people who then come back later to my office to talk about mental health challenges that they face,” said Nikki Marks, who herself has been diagnosed as bipolar and is the survivor of two suicide attempts. “I always talk about, we’re an understanding company, and people need to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.”
Matt Cahill, who helps run the company’s day-to-day operations at the L’Enfant location, said he has rarely if ever seen Nikki Marks’s door shut. He said he knows dozens of employees who have broached personal mental health issues with upper management and who were immediately offered time off or other kinds of support. The orange T-shirt Wednesdays help drive these discussions, acting as a visible “conversation starter,” Cahill said.
In 2017, it was Cahill’s turn to ask for help.
“I lost someone very close to me last year to suicide, I told my immediate supervisor and there were no questions asked. It was, ‘Go home and take care of what you need to take care of,’ ” Cahill said.
Stephen Marks explained that Noah’s suicide radically shifted his perspective as an employer. Before, if an employee began struggling and doing a “crappy job,” he probably would have said, “Fire them.” Now, though, his first response is to wonder whether something might be wrong and to ask — without inappropriately pressing for information — whether there’s anything the employee needs or whether they would like to take a break from work.
Janna Marks said the general strategy is to be as flexible as possible.
Katherine Switz, the founder and chief executive of Stability Network, an advocacy group that promotes the stories of successful working individuals who also suffer from mental illness, said she is unaware of any other company that’s doing what Bike and Roll is doing. Switz, who graduated from Harvard Business School and is bipolar, said many companies want to better address mental health in the workplace but simply don’t know how. She said Bike and Roll could serve as “a powerful role model” for others.
Zlatka Russinova, a researcher at Boston University who has conducted multiple studies examining the employment success of people facing serious mental health challenges, said research shows that employer “flexibility” is key to these individuals’ success.
“We know in the field that people do need reasonable accommodations at different points for mental health challenges — flexibility to go and have an appointment, flexibility to check into a hospital and have a brief psychiatric hospitalization, [sometimes] just slightly different work hours,” Russinova said. “It sounds like [Bike and Roll] is addressing all those issues.”
Last week, the company held its second Orange Wednesday Ride, a special annual fundraiser event during which all tour-goers wear orange shirts and all proceeds go to the Orange Wednesday Foundation. Scores of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers showed up, donned orange T-shirts and hopped on bikes or Segways.
They felt Noah’s presence there, too.
In the months and years following Noah’s death, the Markses began to notice what they call “universe winks” — small events that remind them of Noah. Cardinals began showing up all the time (Noah loved birds). Once, a bird flew inside the house in the middle of a very “intense” moment, Stephen Marks said. It extended to the weather, too — during the funeral, just as they arrived at the gravesite, the frigid January day unexpectedly warmed, and the sky proffered a glowing, glorious sunset.
Last Wednesday, it was supposed to storm, as it had for the past several days. Instead, orange-clad riders wended their way through the most balmy and beautiful evening D.C. had seen in weeks.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Katherine Switz’s last name. This post has been corrected.