A year after tragedy, Darien community walks for suicide prevention: 'Power in our togetherness'
Mollie Hersh, Staff writer
May 3, 2023
Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media
DARIEN — Despite the uncertain weather, members of the Darien community arrived Sunday morning for Darien High School’s inaugural Out of the Darkness suicide prevention walk, a moment of healing a year after the school lost two students to suicide last spring.
Students at Darien High School partnered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to host the town’s first campus walk, billed as one of the larges in the country.
The rain of a weekend-long storm paused just long enough for more than 470 volunteers and attendees to walk the mile-long loop through the trails behind the high school in solidarity.
“It felt like the universe — I can tell that it's holding out,” art teacher Lauren Stelluti said as the rain held off. “This just feels very cosmic, like we are supposed to be able to walk.”
Darien’s initial fundraising goal was $5,000. By the start of the walk, assistant principal Kate Dimoulas became slightly choked up while announcing that the walk had raised more than $30,000 for the cause and counting.
Out of the nearly 200 campus walks being held across the country this year, Darien’s was the largest in the state and within the top 10 in the nation, according to Michelle Peters, area director of AFSP’s Connecticut chapter.
“I've never seen anything like this in the whole six years I've been here,” she said. “To see the entire community come together for a common cause — this is really amazing, and they should know how remarkable that is.”
Dimoulas, who helped coordinate the event with AFSP, said the walk’s success came down to the committee of students who poured weeks of effort into making it happen.
“It's really expanded at the last minute and gained traction, and that wouldn't have happened without them talking about how important it is to them,” Dimoulas said of the student organizers. “I couldn't be more grateful for them and for their courage to get up and say hard things and talk about hard things. And for the parents and community members who showed up to do that with them.”
Students created a social media campaign to promote the walk, posted flyers in business windows and wrote speeches which they read as part of the walk’s opening ceremony.
Senior Kate Avitabile said she joined to “remind everyone that they're not alone,” after a year that deeply affected not only her, but the entire community, she said.
“I thought that it would be really important if I showed my support and my interest in helping to break down the stigma of mental health,” she said. “I knew that this would be a way that I would definitely be able to showcase my support and help spread positive messages.”
Junior Ashley Clarke, also on the committee, raised the most money of any individual, more than $1,300, by reaching out to family friends, her parents’ associates and members of the Darien Arts Center, she said.
“I feel definitely an overwhelming sense of thankfulness and gratitude to all the people who helped me,” she said. “It really means a lot that people can take time out of their day to fill out a form and donate money, no matter how small or how big the donation is.”
All of the students worked together to brainstorm and set up booths for local organizations and groups including Kids in Crisis, Laurel House, YMCA — and Wave Strong, the largest team fundraiser of the day.
Through Wave Strong, Darien students and parents are working to break down the stigmas around mental health, parent Laura Bremer said. Throughout the week, Darien sports teams participated in the spring Wave Strong Week to raise money for mental health awareness.
“This community has rallied so beautifully over the past year,” she said. “Our response and our sense of community and togetherness is something really incredible.”
Though the majority of campus walks are held at colleges, Avitabile said it was important high schools have the difficult conversation around mental health, too.
“I know that it's not necessarily what people want to be talking about, but it's just something that needs to be spoken about,” she said. “I think that doing it at a high school level is really just introducing people to the idea and spreading the message that it's OK to not be OK.”
As part of the event, those walking wore beaded necklaces symbolizing the reasons they walk — for lost friends and family, for a personal struggle or to show support for suicide prevention.
Student volunteer Addy Hills was walking for a family member’s struggle; fellow ninth grader Kaelyn Lee walked for a friend, they said.
“I had a friend last year that also tried to commit suicide, and I didn't really know what I could do and like how it could help,” Lee said. “I felt like this is a really good opportunity to spread awareness.”
“I know a lot of people do not talk about this topic enough, but if we spread the awareness and make people comfortable, we can save a lot of lives today,” Hills said.
Thinking back on where they were a year ago, Stelluti said she was happy to see the students smiling again and proud beyond words of their strength in the face of something no one should have to go through, especially at that age, she said.
“I always feel like I'm stronger when I'm surrounded by them,” she said. “I felt like I didn't want to be any other place but here like with them. I just felt this power in our togetherness.”
Clarke said she was surprised by how emotional she felt during the walk, but grateful for the support of her classmates. Going into her senior year, she said she hopes to be a part of next year’s committee after the walk’s success.
“Even when I go off to college, I still want to be involved in the Out of the Darkness walks within Darien because it's where I grew up, and I would love to see it flourish into something bigger,” she said.
Dimoulas said she felt hopeful after the walk and grateful everything came together in the end, complete with a minor miracle from nature.
“The world works in mysterious ways sometimes for us, and allows for beautiful things to happen when we need beauty to be here,” she said. “When we look for the light, it's always there. That's what they did together today, and I'm really glad that I got to be a part of it. I'm very proud and grateful.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-273-8255.
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