Hundreds of walkers took part in a six-mile trek along Spriggs Road in the mid-county area last weekend to raise awareness about teen suicide.
Prince William County school officials estimated that more than 400 people participated in the walk, a round trip between Forest Park and Hylton high schools. Although most of the walkers were high school students, participants included young children, adults — some pushing strollers — and even a few dogs.
Students in Advanced Placement government classes at Forest Park organized the event as their final project, which their teacher, Shannon Geraghty, allowed them to do in place of a final exam.
For eight years, Geraghty has been giving her AP government students the option of completing a class project instead of taking final exams. The students have taken their AP tests, so it seems unfair to require another exam, she said.
Senior Hannah Kolkmeyer, 18, of Manassas came up with the idea of a walk to raise awareness about teen suicide after her cousin took his life in March.
“It’s turned into more than just a project,” she said. “It’s something that we’re all proud of, and, honestly, we’re not just doing it for the grade now. We’re doing it because it’s something that needs to be done.”
Students organized the entire event, Geraghty said. They spoke at school board meetings to publicize the walk, made more than 100 signs, raised money to cover expenses, and solicited donations of snacks and bottled water from area businesses.
On the day of the walk, students were out at 6 a.m. posting signs along the route. Some of the signs displayed facts and statistics, and others offered words of encouragement, such as “You Are Important,” “Hope” and “You Are Not Alone.”
Before the walk, students handed out “memory beads” — necklaces in colors that signified how each person had been affected by suicide, whether as a friend or family member of someone who had taken his or her life, as someone who had considered or attempted suicide, or simply as a supporter of suicide awareness.
A team of mental health counselors was present in case anyone felt the need to talk to a professional.
“If they want to talk about whatever it is that they feel, sometimes they are afraid to do that because of the stigma,” said Ramfis Marquez of the Greater Prince William Community Health Center. “You should not wait until you are suffering from a major depressive disorder. Go see a counselor. Take care of yourself.”
Marc DeAngelo, a social worker at Forest Park, said he was pleased to see that some of the students he had helped through difficult times were participating in the walk.
“That’s been pretty emotional for me, to be able to see families that I’ve worked with come out as a community and . . . to just be open about it,” he said.
The event concluded with a series of speakers, including public officials, parents and students whose lives had been touched by suicide.
Catherine Smith Connolly, wife of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), told the audience that it is difficult to prevent suicide because of the stigma attached to asking for help.
“Every time you need help and you ask for help, you are breaking that stigma,” said Smith Connolly, co-founder of Congressional Spouses for Suicide Prevention and Education. “And that’s critical to decreasing and eventually ending suicide.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.