WILKES-BARRE – Ashley Long had to stop herself from getting emotional as she talked about her brother.
Donning matching orange shirts, the Wilkes-Barre resident and her teammates prepared to walk through an archway of blue and white balloons Sunday, beginning their three-mile trek around Kirby Park and Downtown Wilkes-Barre for the Out of the Darkness Walk for suicide prevention and awareness.
“My brother T.J. committed suicide last year,” Long explained, adding this is the second year she’s attended the walk. “Last year I was in shock at how many people that actually committed suicide. You just never know what people are going through.”
The annual event was hosted by the Greater Northeast Chapter for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which covers six counties in the Northeast and offers various free programs to the communities it serves. Out of the Darkness walks are held in various cities around the nation through the foundation.
By the numbers
Shuffling through a batch of blue registration forms, chapter director Samantha Benz exclaimed that this year’s event went above-and-beyond in terms of fundraising and attendance.
More than 1,000 attendees participated in the walk, with more than 95 teams fundraising for the organization, she added. While the event is free, donations are encouraged, with teams competing to raise money to continue suicide education, prevention and programs through the nonprofit in their communities.
“This year we’ve blown all goals out of the water. To even have 900 people register before the event has never been done, and going into the event we had $60,000 raised – last year in total we raised $40,000,” Benz said.
“The money that we raise today allows us to offer free educational programming to the community to basically anyone who asks us for it,” she continued.
According to the nonprofit, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, at about 123 deaths per day. While Benz admitted there’s been a certain stigma carried with suicide in the past, society has become more accepting and willing to talk about the problem because of the increase in celebrity suicide-related deaths.
“That gets people talking about suicide more, and so people aren’t afraid to come out and show support and talk about it,” she said.
Close to home
Shortly before the walk began, chapter chairwoman Dawn Evans welcomed various speakers, including Wilkes-Barre City Mayor Tony George and sate Sen. John Yudichak, D-Nanticoke. Both men addressed the confusion and challenges that come after a loved one takes their life, adding that prevention and education is key to overcoming suicide.
“There is light in the darkness, and that light is in the eyes of the more than thousand people who have come out here to Out of the Darkness in Wilkes-Barre,” Yudichak announced after sharing how suicide affected a family friend.
Participants were able to remember their lost loved ones while realizing just how many Northeast residents are affected by suicide through a series of photographs placed along the route. Attendees were able to submit photos of loved ones lost to suicide along with a brief message for walkers to view.
In addition to photos, individuals were able to pick up a beaded necklace, called honor beads, to help connect them with other family members who have lost someone. Necklaces were available in different hues, which each color representing the loss of a spouse, child, veteran, sibling and more.
As she sorted through a stack of honor beads, 15-year-old Loralei Tomchak decided to tell her story of loss and remembrance and a will to help others.
The Edwardsville resident and event volunteer lost her mother to suicide when she was only 9 years old. Since then, Tomchak said she was been helping with various groups and nonprofits.
Tomchak said she learned about Out of the Darkness through a club at her school and decided to volunteer. Her first time at the event, she said she wanted to support her mother’s memory and learn to be more open about her story – although she didn’t expect attendance to be as high as it was.
“I didn’t expect that many people to have lost someone through this – through suicide,” she said. “I feel happy that people still support the memory of their family.
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