CHIPLEY, Fla. (WTVY) -- For the second consecutive year, a group of local residents has coordinated a community walk to commemorate Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, observed nationally in September.
The 2nd annual Be Fearless Walk of Hope will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 14, in Chipley. The event is a labor of love for its organizers, all of whom have lost a loved one to suicide - each who were following a different path in life, a fact the group says highlights suicide as an issue that affects all walks of life.
Co-organizers Gina Churchwell and Janine Newman each suffered the loss of a child to suicide in 2014 and 2015, respectfully. Churchwell’s daughter Cassi was a graduate student working on her Master’s Degree. Newman’s son Logan was a popular 2013 Chipley High School graduate who was an active-duty soldier with the U.S. Air Force.
From outward appearances, both had a wide-open future ahead.
Cassi began struggling with severe depression while still in high school yet still managed to push through, even earning scholarships that helped her graduate with her Bachelor’s Degree. At age 22, she lost her battle, despite efforts from family and friends.
Logan was just 20 when he took his life while stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona where he had a promising career ahead as an Aircraft Electrical and Environmental Specialist. Newman hopes his story will illustrate the need to especially pay attention to the nation’s active and veteran military personnel, as well as first responders, all of whom she says carry an extraordinary burden.
Fellow organizer Jennifer Anderson Losee lost her daughter Maggie to suicide in 2016. Losee says it’s time for the community to stop discussing mental health and suicide in a whisper.
“Since Maggie died, I know of several others who have taken their lives within a 50-mile radius, from a neighbor just five houses from me in Bonifay to Geneva, Alabama, Graceville, Vernon, and Panama City Beach,” said Losee. “My heart breaks every time I hear of another loss, and I feel it’s on the rise in our area.”
The women, along with several others from local peer support group Be Fearless, have resolved to turn their pain into a purpose – and hopefully prevent further losses.
“We want to bring hope and healing,” said Losee. “We want to stop the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental health and hopefully give those who may be struggling the courage to seek help.”
New to the group this year is Toni Petrella, who lost her son, Brandon Petrella at age 18 on September 10, 2012 – which happens to be recognized as National Suicide Awareness Day.
“I didn't even know such a day existed,” said Petrella. “Unfortunately, I do now, and that day forever changed our lives. Brandon was handsome, funny, and smart. He was so kind; he just had a heart of gold. He stood up for people and told people how it was, even if it was hard for him to say and hard for them to hear.”
“The ugliness in the world touched him deeply. He was artistic, he was great in sports, and was an excellent drummer. However, Brandon also suffered from depression, mood swings, lack of self-esteem, and developed an addiction to drugs. The statistics in regards to suicide are staggering, as the numbers rise each year claiming people as young as 10 years old. I got involved with suicide awareness to try and make a difference, any difference to save even one person and family from this grief that I'm now forced to carry.”
Petrella says her journey in the effort to raise awareness has become evening more meaningful since meeting the other women of Be Fearless who have also lost loved ones to suicide.
“Together, we are spreading awareness through event participation and our Walk of Hope event. We do this to bring the community together. Every face in the crowd has been touched by this epidemic, either by losing someone, struggling themselves, or a combination of both. This coming together in community gives people hope, shows them they are not alone, and provides support and education. If there is a tomorrow then there is hope.”
The group also hopes to send a message to the community as a whole: Be kind to one another. “We want to help educate people and urge them to be kinder to each other, to make them realize how their words affect others. Having thoughts of suicide is not a weakness or because someone wants to die. The pain that person feels is simply so overwhelming that they just want to stop hurting any way they can.”
The community is encouraged to participate in the walk by gathering at New Life Fellowship Church, located at 695 5th St. in Chipley, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 14. The route will take walkers from the church to the courthouse and then to the finish line at the Chipley Police Department.
Signs in memory or of encouragement of others are encouraged.
For more information, contact Losee at 850-768-0520.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.