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Marching 16 miles, through the night, for suicide prevention

After the sun sets on Saturday night, hundreds of people will walk 16 miles through the streets of Philadelphia to raise money for suicide-prevention efforts.

Kevin Larkin, of Downingtown, right, holds up a picture of his son, Timothy, during the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's 12th Annual Philadelphia Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Philadelphia, PA in  2016.
Kevin Larkin, of Downingtown, right, holds up a picture of his son, Timothy, during the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's 12th Annual Philadelphia Out of the Darkness Community Walk in Philadelphia, PA in 2016.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Staff Photographer

Six weeks before Judy Tripathi was to walk 16 miles for her son, she took a wrong step in a parking lot and broke her foot.

It was 2014, and the Tripathis of Bryn Mawr — Judy, her husband, Akhil, and children, Sangeeta and Ravi — had resolved, after a year of grieving, to join the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in honor of their youngest, Sunil, a Brown University student who died by suicide in 2013.

The walk takes place in different cities each year, raising awareness and funds for suicide prevention. Even though the event had come to Philadelphia that June, her doctor advised her to rest. But Tripathi walked the whole way, from dusk till dawn, a pink soft cast bracing her fractured right foot.

"And it never healed," she said. "My bone never closed."

If the event does not provide complete closure for people affected by suicide, it does offer some repair, said Tripathi, who has walked every year since. It's an opportunity to meet other survivors, share stories and grief, or simply walk in silence with people who understand.

"It's just being among people, and feeling the enormity of the commitment," Tripathi said.

On Saturday, the Overnight Walk returns to Philadelphia. The Tripathi family is expected to walk alongside an estimated 1,700 others, according to Robert Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which has organized the event since 2005. Another 300 people will volunteer, staffing food and water stations and medical tents, or cheer on walkers as they make their way from the steps of the Art Museum, weave through the city in darkness, and return with the sunrise on Sunday.

The arrival on the Art Museum steps at dawn, Gebbia said, symbolizes bringing a stigmatized subject into public awareness.

"When they lose a loved one or they've struggled, it's been kept a secret," he said of the walkers. "This is bringing that issue into the light."

This will be Joy Lesnick's eighth Overnight Walk. The Fairmount resident marches to honor her little brother, J.J., who died by suicide in 2001, at the age of 14.

"It's happy, it's sad, it's tiring, it's elating," she said of the long walk. "It's the process of grief encapsulated in one night."

Participants can walk as individuals, or as part of a team. The overnight walks are AFSP's major fund-raiser, so participants must raise a minimum of $1,000 from pledges to take part. Last year, the walks — there are two, meant to offer some geographic range — raised $1.5 million for the organization. The money goes toward developing education programs, advocating for state and federal policies to prevent suicide, and providing support and guidance for survivors.

AFSP is also the nation's largest nongovernmental funder of research into the causes of suicide and suicide prevention. Since 1987, it has allocated $44 million in grants for people and organizations researching mental health issues and possible treatments.

Throughout the year, local AFSP chapters also host "community walks" — shorter, daytime affairs with no requirements to raise funds. Last year, there were 411 such events across the country. The Greater Philadelphia chapter holds its annual community walk on the first Sunday in October.

While many of the walkers will come from the Philadelphia region or along the East Coast, some are crossing vast distances to participate. People are registered from San Jose, Phoenix, and Miami, from Woodinville, Wash., and Simpsonville, S.C.

Karen Zaukar flew in from Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this week. She'll walk in honor of her best friend, David, who died in 2010, at 19. She also wants to support other survivors as they struggle with the pain of loss.

"I didn't know how to cope with it," she said, of her friend's death. "I didn't feel like I could talk about it. So I just fumbled around, and went into a deep place."

Getting involved in suicide-prevention efforts, including the walk, Zaukar said, saved her.

"That's when I realized I could turn that darkness into light for somebody else," she said. "I learned how to accept it, to become a voice for that friend who's no longer here."

The evening will begin with a brief ceremony on the Art Museum steps. Many walkers will wear colored beads to represent their stories — white beads for those who lost a child, orange for a sibling, silver for a member of the military, and green for those who themselves have struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts.

Lesnick said her years of participation have allowed her circle of friends — who support her by donating, walking alongside her, or cheering from the sidelines — to have the conversations about suicide that often occur only after a tragedy. One friend brings her young daughter to hand out Popsicles to the walkers. That girl, now an eighth grader, recently told her teacher about a classmate who was making worrisome remarks.

"She knew how to do that because we have this conversation every year when they come out to support the walk," Lesnick said.

The recent high-profile deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade may also call attention to the warning signs of suicide and to the fact that depression is a treatable illness, Gebbia said.

Bourdain's death hit Noelle Gesualdo, of Upper Darby, especially hard: It took place on the eight-year anniversary of losing her father, Len, to suicide.

"It knocked the wind out of me," she said. "I thought of my father, someone who from the outside looks like they have everything, and on the inside, nobody knew what was going on."

But Gesualdo also feels heartened by the amount of conversation these celebrities spurred.

"I feel like the stigma is being broken down when things like this happen on a high-profile level, where everybody is forced to pay attention to it and it's in the news," she said.

This year's walk will be her fourth. Every time she takes part, she said, she is reminded just how many people are affected by suicide, "and we have no idea until we have events like this that bring people together."

Nationwide, suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death. A recent CDC study found that the rate of suicide increased 28 percent between 1999 and 2016.

Before participants begin walking, they will decorate white paper bags with images or memories of their loved ones. By the time they finish walking, volunteers will have placed a candle within each one and lined them up and down the museum steps, gently illuminating the finish line.

For Judy Tripathi, the last few miles of the journey are always the most arduous. Last year, she told her son, Ravi, that she wished the walk was just a bit shorter. She could do without the last two or three miles, she said.

"Mom, that's part of it," he told her. "It's the struggle."

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.