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Spurred by loss, Palo Alto teacher organizes suicide awareness walk in Woodside

Peninsula's first-ever Hike for Hope to take place Sunday, May 19

Editor's note: Resources for any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal are listed at the bottom of this article.

The first time Jaclyn Petty felt some sense of relief after her brother died by suicide she was in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by strangers.

Six months after his death, she decided to go to San Diego for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's annual Out of the Darkness event. Every year, people who have lost loved ones to suicide, who have survived attempts themselves and those who want to support the cause walk together for 16 miles overnight to raise money for suicide awareness.

She wore a shirt with her brother's name on the back and orange "honor" beads around her neck, the color designated for those who have lost siblings to suicide.

"I was literally wearing the most vulnerable part of myself on my back in the middle of a city that I really had never been to around hundreds and hundreds of people," said Petty, a fourth-grade teacher at Juana Briones Elementary School in Palo Alto.

It was the most public she had ever been about her loss: Until then, when she would talk to people about her brother, who had suffered from severe depression and anxiety for much of his life, she had been met with uncomfortable reactions.

Even in the crowd at the event, she felt alone — until a young woman approached her in line. She asked Petty who she was walking for and said she was there for her mother. Petty looked at the crowds of people around her in a new light: They had all gone through exactly what she had.

"It was a weight off my shoulders," she said. "It was immediate comfort in unspoken words to know that someone that I am next to that I have never met before ... you immediately connect on this deeper emotional level because they know your grief."

Petty's experience in San Diego inspired her to reach out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and organize her own suicide awareness walk for the region where she grew up and now works. The Hike for Hope will take place next Sunday, May 19, at Huddart Park in Woodside — the first-ever such event for the Peninsula.

The hike will raise funds for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention educational programs, research, advocacy and support services for suicide survivors.

Petty also felt compelled to do something because of the history of the Palo Alto school district, which has doubled down on supporting student mental health after two teen suicide clusters. She sees anxiety and stress in children as young as her fourth-grade students and hears often from teachers who are struggling as parents to support their older children.

"I hear their pain and what they're going through in trying to support their child because of the pressure and the work and the lack of sleep and the comparisons and the stress that (their children are) feeling is leading them to unhealthy mental choices," Petty said.

She hopes the hike will not only raise money to combat suicide but help people feel less alone, as she did in San Diego.

"When you've lost someone to suicide ... it's a very unique type of grief," Petty said. "People don't talk about it. People are afraid to ask you about it. It was very lonely."

Anyone is welcome to participate in the hike. There will be the same "honor" beads to provide visual cues of participants' loss: white for those who lost a child, red for a spouse or partner, gold for a parent, orange for a sibling, green for those who struggle with mental illness themselves, teal for their friends and family, blue for those who support the cause.

"It's for the people that are left behind and it's for people that are still here. It's for them to feel connected and to come together," Petty said of the hike.

Petty and Ryan Ayers, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Northern California Area director, will speak at the start of the event.

People can set fundraising goals and ask others to donate in advance of the event. Petty has so far raised more than $7,500 toward a $10,000 goal.

The hike is 2 miles long and meant for all ability levels, but there is also a shorter 1.5-mile route available. The event begins at 9:30 a.m. and will last until 3 p.m. at 1100 Kings Mountain Road, Woodside. Parking is $6 (cash only).

Registration and other information about the event is posted at afsp.donordrive.com.

Help is available

Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Additional resources can be found here.

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