HIBBING — An evening of masked intrigue, formal attire and out of this world entertainment is set to return to downtown Hibbing this weekend.

The fourth annual Armadillo Project Masquerade Ball is scheduled for 6-9 p.m. this Saturday at the Moose Event Center, located at 421 Howard Street. Attendees will be treated to hors d’oeuvres, astrology readings by Meredith McCowan of Earthling Astrology, psychic medium readings by Natalie Fowler, as well as tarot card readings. There will also be sets of live music performed by local artist JoAnn Wirkkula and more games than previous years, including Spin the Wheel, Plinko and others.

Tickets are $30 and are available in advance at Mike’s Pub or online at www.armadilloproject.com. About 150 people typically attend this popular event each year.

Touting a theme of “Enchanted evening under the night stars,” the Masquerade Ball fundraiser is part of a legacy project known as the Armadillo Project, honoring the late U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Travis Nowak, of Hibbing.

On Nov. 10, 2016, at age 23, Nowak took his own life, leaving behind family and friends who have since banned together to help support area veterans and their families in need of mental health and suicide prevention resources.

Shelly Hanson, Nowak’s mother, can still recall the immense frustration she felt back in 2016 when trying to find mental health resources for her son, who after serving overseas in the Marine Corps petitioned for an honorable discharge and returned home with overwhelming depression and suicidal ideations. Hanson turned over every rock in search of help, but many of the services she found had specific “niches” that acted more like roadblocks than pathways to assistance.

The tragedy of Nowak’s suicide brought the Armadillo Project into existence, with Hanson determined not to let other military members or their families slip through the cracks of a complex system. Statistics show that 22 veterans commit suicide each day, and Hanson believes that number should be zero — but she understands that won’t happen on its own.

The goals of the Armadillo Project are to advocate for a change in the length of time a veteran has to transition from military to a civilian lifestyle, streamline the process of having medical records ready and available — including local doctors and community resources, and establish a mental health plan prior to discharge which includes educating those who will be home providing support to their veteran.

The members of the Armadillo Project, Hanson insisted, work hard to guide anyone in need to the local resources without exclusion or judgement.

“Making here matter — that’s our mission,” Hanson said. “We don’t have the right to make judgements about whether someone is really suicidal or not. We just need to be there for them.”

Brochures and additional information on the topic will be available at the Masquerade Ball.

The other purpose for forming the Armadillo Project was to fulfill one of Nowak’s dreams: bringing an air soft playing field to Hibbing.

Thanks to donations from a wide array of individuals and businesses, Hanson and her group were able to purchase Archery Attack equipment along with land for an air soft field — named after Nowak — which is located off Townline Road in Hibbing. The group also worked with St. Louis County last year to include veterans resources on www.thriverange.org, a site for free online therapy and guide for finding help with mental health and substance problems on the Iron Range. Looking ahead, Hanson hopes to develop funds to aid veterans experiencing financial emergencies and develop new resources for educating the public on the effects of suicide.

Though it was tragedy that brought the group into fruition, it’s now hope, laughter and joy that embody each of the Armadillo Project’s events, such as the Travathon — a run, kayak, bike and archery shoot — and plus last year’s all new photo contest. It’s Hanson’s way of helping others in “making here matter.”

When she thinks about how far the organization has come, she said the community support has been huge. “Travis, the mission, the evening out with the Masquerade Ball — people come year after year,” Hanson reflected. “I’m excited that offering these events is making a moment that people can spend together. It’s all about making a moment.”

Anyone interested is asked to grab their best formal wear and mask and buy their tickets early.

To learn more about the Armadillo Project, visit www.armadilloproject.com.

•••

If you or someone you love is considering suicide, text RANGE to the crisis text line at 741741, call the Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-8255 (800-273-TALK), visit thriverange.org, or visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.

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