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‘Finding hope and light again:' More than 400 attend nation’s largest Out of Darkness Campus Walk for suicide prevention
A Denmark High School student holds up a sign with a number others can call for support while walking alongside Forsyth Central Assistant Principal Carrie MacAllaster during the Forsyth County's first Out of Darkness Campus Walk for suicide prevention. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

More than 400 community members attended Forsyth County’s first ever Out of the Darkness Campus Walk on Saturday, March 26, raising more than $55,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Chelsea Piatt, associate area director for the AFSP Georgia chapter, said the turnout and money raised made the event held on Forsyth Central High School’s campus the largest of the 142 annual Out of Darkness walks held throughout the nation.

The event was planned and organized by Forsyth Central senior Ali Norris who lost her older brother, Stephen, to suicide when she was 14 years old. For her, the turnout for the event was overwhelming. 

“Seeing the amount of people here supporting mental health and supporting those who are struggling, I cannot tell you how much it means to me,” Norris said. 

Story continues below.

Signs decorate the entrance to Forsyth Central High School's football field where families and community members from across Forsyth and surrounding counties came to take part in the Out of Darkness Campus Walk on Saturday, March 26. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Her family, Forsyth Central’s administration, Piatt, local sponsors and community members have helped fundraise and organize the event over the last several months. 

“This has been a crazy, crazy journey,” said Chris Woodall, an assistant administrator at Forsyth Central. 

When Norris first came to the school's administration with the idea for the walk, Woodall said the goal was to raise $2,500-5,000 and expected maybe 100 participants overall. But the Forsyth community exceeded their expectations. 

“The support that we’ve felt from the community, the support that Ali has been given as she’s gone out and spoken to different organizations around the community, has just been incredible,” Woodall said. 

He explained this incredible show of support in raising awareness of suicide and mental health also comes at an important “time in our history,” as many more have struggled with stress, anxiety and depression through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is more than just a walk,” Woodall said. “It’s a recognition of this entire movement.” 

Before beginning the walk, community member Raquel Cooke took a moment to share her story. 

On March 16, 2021, her son Sam, a senior at Forsyth Central at the time, took his own life. 

“It’s hard to find words that are piercing enough, bruising enough or catastrophic enough to describe that night for us,” Cooke said. “Our world collapsed, and we fell to the ground with it.” 

Sam had been open with his family about his depression, which he struggled with for about 18 months. His parents did all they could to help support him, trying to get help, listen and provide safety for him. 

In the end, Cooke said what happened last year completely shocked them. 

“It is hard to believe we will ever feel whole again,” Cooke said. 

But even though she and her family still struggle with what happened, she said they are, little by little, starting to find hope again. 

“We are getting up from where we fell to the ground, and, to our own surprise, we are walking,” Cooke said. “To each one of you here finding hope and light again, I see you, and I will look for hope and light with you.” 

Ali Norris, far right, leads the group of 400 participants in the walk around Forsyth Central High School's football field alongside other community supporters and organizers. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Piatt said stories like these are exactly why the AFSP works to help organize the Out of Darkness Campus Walks and bring community members together who may be struggling. 

To help bring others together, Piatt held an Honor Bead Ceremony during the event. During the ceremony, participants held up different colored beads one at a time to show others why they attended the walk. 

Purple and blue beads represent the loss of a friend or relative to suicide; blue also shows support for the cause; orange for loss of a sibling; silver for loss of military or first responders; gold for loss of a parent; white for loss of a child; red for loss of a partner or spouse; green for those personally struggling with their mental health; and teal for those supporting someone who struggles or has made a suicide attempt. 

After seeing others with the same-colored beads, Piatt encouraged everyone to talk with others, connect and share their stories during the walk.

“It’s an experience you don’t want to have in common with someone, but once you do, it’s a very special connection and a great way to come together as a community and erase the stigma against mental health and talk about suicide prevention,” Piatt said. 

Guests reach for beaded necklaces left on a table, each color representing a different reason for their participation in the walk. They later held up the necklaces as part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Honor Bead Ceremony to show others they are not alone in their experience with suicide loss. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

All the more than 400 participants walked around Forsyth Central’s track surrounding the football field, listening to music and talking amongst each other. Some held up signs with information about resources and support so those struggling. 

Piatt said the more than $55,000 donated will go directly into AFSP, a nonprofit with a mission to save lives and bring hope to those impacted by suicide. 

To do this, the AFSP provides funding to scientific research around suicide prevention, provides prevention education programs to organizations and businesses in the community, advocates for federal and state policies supporting suicide prevention and mental health, and shows support to those impacted by suicide loss. 

With the funds raised through the walk, Piatt said the Georgia chapter will be able to bring even more programs to the community and provide even more funding for prevention research. 

Event organizers also reminded participants of the resources already available in Forsyth County for those struggling with their mental health. 

Participants ask an event organizer a questions as they approach on of the many tables set up on the event where families and students could learn more about mental health resources available in Forsyth and take photos with others in the community. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Sgt Terry Hawkins with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office reminded the community of the Crisis Intervention Response Team, which provides a specialized response to calls for service related to mental health. These often include situations involving depression and suicidal ideation. 

“The sheriff’s office, on average, is getting more than one call a day of that type,” Hawkins said. “We love that we get a chance to engage and interact. And then hopefully change behavior, change thinking, connect to resources.” 

Hawkins said those struggling with their mental health often feel disconnected and hopeless, or they may feel as though no one else understands what they are going through. 

“If you are struggling with those thoughts, I hope you’ll take a second today and take a look around and see that we have a lot of people here that are showing you that they care, showing you that they understand,” Hawkins said. “I would encourage you to call someone if you’re having those thoughts or know someone who is.” 

He said if anyone is unsure of who they can call, they should call 911 so the CIRT can come out to help them. Beginning this summer, anyone across the nation will also be able to dial 988 to connect to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

For now, those struggling with their mental health can call the lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Chelsea Piatt, the Associate Area Director for the Georgia Chapter of AFSP, tells the crowd more about the nonprofit and how the more than $55,000 raised from the walk would benefit the community and scientific research supporting suicide prevention. - photo by Sabrina Kerns
Forsyth Central High School Assistant Administrator Chris Woodall welcomes the Out of Darkness Campus Walk participants to the school's football field alongside Ali Norris, right. - photo by Sabrina Kerns