Under a bright blue sky, a large crowd slowly made its way down the street. The steps moving along the asphalt were deliberate and intentional. Most participants had strands of colored beads slung around their necks to honor personal connections to the cause.

On Saturday, more than 700 people filled the streets of East Helena for the second annual Out of Darkness Campus Walk. The fundraiser supports the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s local and national education and advocacy programs, which aim to reduce national suicide rates.

“The event is a hopeful one,” said Jess Hegstrom, co-chair of the Out of Darkness event. “We want more people in the community to be aware of this issue and come to understand that suicide is completely preventable.”

The event began with an opening ceremony at 2 p.m. in front of the East Helena City Hall building. Speakers included walk organizer Tova Reddick-Starkel; Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, who represents East Helena; East Helena Mayor James Schell; Bill and Lisa Wheeler of the Jacob Wheeler Foundation; mental health advocate Jack Oberweiser; and East Helena Public School Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer.

Dunwell, who regularly works to pass legislation for mental health and youth suicide prevention, led some of the opening remarks before the start of the walk.

“We can walk suicide out of the darkness of stigma and silence into the light of hope and healing,” said Dunwell. “Events like this walk are bringing mental illness into the light of prevention, intervention, and treatment.”

Bill Wheeler, of the Jacob Wheeler Foundation, also presented a brief reflection on the loss of his own son to suicide four years ago and the lessons he has learned since.

“The key to getting out of the black hole is reaching out to other people,” said Wheeler. “Sometimes that means reaching out to someone else and letting them know how much they mean to you.”

Just before participants started the two-mile walk, Jack Oberweiser, retired Carroll College professor and mental health advocate, serenaded the crowd with his rendition of the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The opening lyrics of “When you walk through the storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark,” no doubt echoed in the walkers’ minds as they began the walk through the streets of East Helena.

Many of Saturday’s participants displayed honor beads around their necks to pay tribute to a loved one lost, signify a personal struggle and/or show support of the cause. The beads come in nine different colors and each acknowledges the ways in which suicide and depression have affected the participants’ lives.

Whether white beads that signify loss of a child, purple that mark a lost relative or friend or teal that designate friends and family of someone struggling, the honor beads are a visual symbol that no one walks alone when it comes to suicide and mental illness.

Hegstrom shared that the honor beads serve as a source of connection between participants. When someone notices another participant wearing the same color of beads, there is potential for a conversation to start about their shared losses.

“The honor beads serve as a sort of silent code,” said Hegstrom.

Rory O’Donnell and some of his family walked on Saturday in remembrance of his father who completed suicide in 2003 as well as a few friends he lost in years past. In the immediate aftermath of their deaths, O’Donnell admitted feeling hopeless.

“You really think the darkness will consume you as well,” said O’Donnell. “But you have to move on … life has to go on. That’s what the people you lost would want.”

O’Donnell was present for the inaugural Out of Walk Darkness Campus Walk in 2017 and returned for Saturday’s event.

“It’s amazing to see how many people here have gone through the same thing as me,” said O’Donnell. “It’s neat to see that unity among so many people.”

The participants in the East Helena walk Saturday joined 175 Out of the Darkness Campus Walks being held nationwide this year. While the walk itself was free to participate in, donations to AFSP were accepted. According to Hegstrom, approximately $31,000 was raised at the 2017 Out of Darkness Walk event.

“We were completely blown away by the outpouring of community support, especially for a first-time event,” said Hegstrom of the 2017 fundraising efforts.

For 2018, the event set a fundraising goal of $35,000. The money raised goes towards education, outreach and research for suicide prevention. Half of the money raised at Saturday’s walk goes toward local efforts. Hegstrom also shared that participants who donated $100 or more received an official Out of the Darkness Campus Walk T-shirt.

New to the Out of Darkness event this year was a closing ceremony that featured a performance by Oberweiser. There was also a free barbecue with hamburgers and hot dogs for the first 500 participants.

Saturday’s Out of Darkness Campus Walk united hundreds of community members in the journey towards preventing suicide.

“The Out of Darkness Walk is a hopeful event,” said Hegstrom. “It’s a pilgrimage of sorts — an individual walk you make while thinking about someone you’ve lost. It’s an emotional event, especially if you’ve lost someone.”

“The walk has a very positive and healing atmosphere to it,” said O’Donnell. “Everyone who participates seems happy in a good and healing way. It’s a positive gathering for a negative problem.”

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