Fighting suicide, step by step

Published 9:36 pm Monday, September 30, 2019

Hundreds of friends and family gathered at Bennett’s Creek Park on Saturday to remember their loved ones, and to shine a light that shows a way “Out of the Darkness” for those affected by suicide.

The annual Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk drew more than 400 participants on Saturday morning for a powerful atmosphere of community in the heat and humidity. They walked five laps around the park while wearing team shirts and Honor Beads in different colors that represented their personal connections to the cause.

The five laps represented the five core values of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: passion, community, harmony, impact and well-being. This community has one goal: to prevent suicide from happening.

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“We are here to make a change,” Robert Avila, co-chair of the Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk with his wife, Yvonne Avila, told the hundreds gathered on Saturday. “We are here to say to everybody in our communities (that) we are here to support each other. We are here to help each other.”

Out of the Darkness Walks bring together hundreds of thousands of people nationwide to raise awareness and funds that allow the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to invest in research, educational programs, public policy advocacy and support for survivors of suicide loss.

As of Monday evening, the Suffolk walk has raised more than $23,000, according to the website at Walk donations will continue to be accepted until Dec. 31.

“Our goal is $30,000, and we’re going to continue pushing forward to reach our goal and exceed it,” Robert Avila said.

Speakers shared their own experiences on how suicide has affected them. Pictures of the deceased and affections written in marker hung on the honor wall at the event, while various organizations shared information and services with participants.

Names were read of loved ones lost to suicide, and members of the audience stood up to share even more names. After each name was spoken, a bell was rung, in a ceremony that mirrored the tolling of the boats, a tradition that honors all the lost U.S. submarines and their sailors dating back to 1915.

Naval Medical Center Portsmouth brought all-white boots that honored each and every sailor or Marine who died by suicide in 2018.

Walkers were able to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide by sharing their own personal stories on Saturday.

“Oftentimes the stigma and secrecy of mental health and of suicide prevent people from reaching out and getting help,” said Dr. Shalyn Thomas, a clinical psychologist and one of the event speakers. “It’s breaking the stigma with a conversation that will force the recognition of these problems, and it all begins with community, just like this one.”

Grecian Standley and Afton McKim of Tabitha Chapter 003, Order of the Eastern Star in Suffolk, come to the Suffolk walk every year in memory of friends they lost to suicide.

Standley said the resources at the event help her to help others.

“There’s no judgment or anything like that,” Standley said. “People are literally out here for the same cause, dealing with whatever their griefs are, and just knowing how to deal with them as the person who is left behind. I love it. I don’t care if it was just two people out here, I’m coming.”

Teams found unique ways to remember their loved ones, like the friends and family of “#TeamJerry,” with a team shirt that had Captain America’s shield emblazoned on the front.

Connie Biddle’s son, Jerry Hatfield, loved Captain America, she said, and he always wore his Captain America shirts for his workouts. Biddle came out to the 2017 Suffolk Out of the Darkness Walk less than three months after her son Jerry Hatfield took his own life on July 17, 2017. He was 50 years old.

“He was a part of my heart, and my life has not been the same since he’s been gone,” she said.

But Hatfield’s death does not define who he was, Biddle said, and his friends and family continue to honor his memory.

“He was bigger than life,” said Dawn Griggs of Team Jerry. “He was a force to be reckoned with.”

Robert Avila told everyone on Saturday to “fill your hearts and minds with positive memories of our loved ones,”

“They will always watch over us. Here and forever, they will watch over us,” he said.

Robert and Yvonne Avila honor the memory of their 17-year-old daughter, Katherine Lauren Avila, whom they lost to suicide in 2016. Robert wore Kathy’s ashes in a necklace during the event — with a promise to never stop fighting.

“I will continue to love her and share her and share our story to everybody around here, so that they know and they understand that there is hope and help for others that need help,” he said. “Kathy wanted us to do that, so we’re going to continue pushing for Kathy and every other person that we lost by suicide, and we will continue fighting.”

Visit for fundraising and other information.