Authored By Terri Sudduth, Stephanie Waltman
As volunteers for the Southeast Texas chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, we were both so excited to co-chair the first Hike for Hope suicide prevention event held in Galveston, Texas. This cause is personal for both of us. Terri lost her mom to suicide 20 years ago, and after receiving an AFSP brochure at the funeral, has long been involved with AFSP, attending Out of the Darkness Walks and volunteering first in Austin and then with the Southeast Texas chapter. Stephanie, too, is passionate about mental health, having suffered from childhood trauma and difficult mental health experiences, as well as losing several family members to suicide. Stephanie’s involvement with AFSP began when Terri invited her to an Out of the Darkness Walk in Austin in 2019.
Much as it sounds, AFSP’s Hike for Hope events put a hiking spin on the Out of the Darkness Walks: an opportunity to bring people together to generate awareness for the cause, along with raising funds for suicide prevention in our local community while fostering connection and generating important conversations. The Galveston Hike for Hope, held on Saturday, March 26, 2022, was a 5k journey on the paved seawall that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico on Galveston Island. Although it’s called a “hike,” the event was really a leisurely stroll alongside beautiful scenery, welcoming for anyone who wanted to join in.
The timing of the event was particularly sentimental, as it happened to be the twentieth anniversary of Terri’s mom, Susie’s, suicide. We both wanted the event to provide people an opportunity to feel all the emotions connected to this cause – no matter what those feelings may be. Since the topic is so close to our hearts, we had a clear vision of what the day would be: an opening ceremony that would function as a solemn moment of remembrance, with the rest of the hike imbued with a positive, uplifting vibe.
To create this atmosphere, we had guest speakers talk about the importance of mental health while sharing suicide prevention information. We had a sand ceremony in which members of the community poured sand in honor of the different Honor Bead colors, each representing a different type of personal connection to the cause. (Loss of a child, loss of a parent, one’s own lived experience, support for a friend, etc.) After the ceremony, the music became more upbeat as the 600 Hike for Hope participants who showed up (wow! 600!) headed to the starting point of the walk on the lawn of a local amphitheater at Menard Park, led by a personal team, Gonzo’s Gobblers, who walked in honor of John Matthew Gonzalez, a local firefighter who recently died by suicide. For those who preferred not to walk, there were activities at the amphitheater including live music, bubbles, a children’s area, food, drinks, and booths where vendors were set up to speak with participants.
There was such a need for this event. Several members of the Galveston community were grieving from losses as recent as a few weeks prior, so fresh in the early stages of their loss that they didn’t know yet what to feel. We heard from several participants that they felt connected to others simply from a glance – a smile across the lawn from someone wearing the same bead color as them. Many people shared that the event felt powerful because they didn’t currently have a support system through their family or friends – as a result, the strangers they met at the Hike for Hope became instant, deep connections. (That’s what these events are all about.) People came from coast to coast – California to New Jersey – specifically to attend the Hike for Hope, and support loved ones.
For Terri, this event was bittersweet: a good way to continue keeping her mom’s memory alive. For Stephanie, whose family had mostly been uncomfortable talking about suicide even after their losses, it was emotional to be publicly vulnerable about her own mental struggles by wearing a teal-colored bead for the first time.
The event was a huge success – in impact, attendance, and fundraising. Our initial goals had been 200 attendees, with 10 vendors, and $5k raised, which would help support AFSP’s presence in the community through suicide prevention education, loss support, advocacy and more. In addition to a whopping 600 people showing up, with 15 vendors, we raised over $63,000, with over 50 registered teams hiking and fundraising in honor of loved ones. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The high was 75 degrees without a cloud in the sky. There was a pleasant ocean breeze and ample water/hydration stations provided along the 5k walk route. We had an outpouring of support from the community, including guest speakers Galveston Mayor Dr. Craig Brown, Fire Chief Charlie Olsen, Police Chaplain Heather Gates, and more. Several families had small children in strollers, and even a few golf carts. The kids loved seeing the fire truck, beach patrol truck, and police vehicles on site near the kid’s area, where there were mental health coloring books, activities, and games set up. A local news channel, I45 Now, was present and provided wonderful video footage that accurately captured the emotions and impact of the event.
It was incredible to see how the community rallied to support such an incredible cause. The Hike spread information to the community through numerous community outreach activities at local businesses, the farmers market, etc. Its success has even led to the first ever International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event in the community, planned for November 19, 2022, in Galveston, in which survivors of suicide loss come together to find connection, understanding, and hope through their shared experience. (You can learn more and find your local “Survivor Day” event here.)
We are so incredibly proud to be a part of AFSP and bring such important mental health and suicide prevention resources to our community.
We are already planning our next Hike for Hope – March 25, 2023, at McGuire Dent Rec Center along the Seawall on Galveston Island. We can’t wait to see you there!
Learn more about local AFSP events in your area here.