At the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), we are currently in full swing of the Out of the Darkness Community Walk season, with our wonderful volunteers and staff busy planning over 400 Walks nationwide. The Out of the Darkness Walks raises awareness and much-needed funds to combat suicide, which has long been a leading cause of death. The Walks spread hope and spark much-needed conversations within communities all across the country. The Atlanta Community Walk holds a special place in my heart — especially this year, as it is Atlanta’s 20th annual event.
The Out of the Darkness Community Walks started in 2004. I was hired by Mike Lamma (now the Chief Operating Officer for AFSP) and asked to lead a small group of dedicated survivors of suicide loss in navigating the world of event planning, Walker recruitment, and fundraising. My professional background is in psychiatric nursing, and my volunteer background is more closely aligned with this Walk coordinator position.
That first year in Atlanta, 248 people walked with us in Piedmont Park and $57,000 was raised — most of which came from several companies providing us with start-up money. AFSP had 24 Walks nationwide that first year, which raised $800,000 in all.
Not a bad start — but we’ve come such a long way since then in so many different ways.
The funds raised through the Out of the Darkness Walks contribute directly to our efforts to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide: caring support for those who’ve lost a loved one, research that helps reveal how lives can be saved in the future, suicide prevention education programs, public policy advocacy, and more. It’s thanks to our record of translating these funds into practical and impactful action that we have been awarded an“A” rating from Charity Watch and four-stars on Charity Navigator.
Last year, over 5,000 people walked in Atlanta, raising over half a million dollars. That 2022 Walk ranked third of over 400 Walks nationwide in funds raised, and we are so proud. For this year’s Walk, the Atlanta Walk Committee and staff have a goal of $670,000. Last year, $23.5 million was raised nationwide; this year’s goal is $27 million. People across the country are realizing more and more that these efforts are important and are stepping up to support us.
We’ve also come a long way in how people have become much more open to talking about mental health and suicide. The first few years of our Walks, people passing by would come up to us and ask what we were doing. They often seemed confused about how a Walk could help to fight suicide. We explained the importance of bringing this subject out into the open and sending the message that no one is alone, the importance of supporting those affected by suicide, and the importance of educating, funding scientific research, and advocating for impactful public policy related to mental health and suicide prevention.
We raised over $100,000 those first two years the Atlanta Walk took place and were able to build a sustainable local AFSP chapter in Georgia in 2006. Now, when people come upon us at a Walk, they take resources, sign up to volunteer, and ask to put something on a Hope and Healing wall. So many people have been touched by suicide. Many of them find us through our Walks.
The majority of funds raised at the Walks now come from our amazing Walkers. They are passionate about this cause for many reasons: they may have lost a loved one to suicide, they may have their own lived experience, they may work in the mental health field, or they simply understand that this is an issue that affects us all and needs everyone’s support. They understand we are good stewards of their money, with over 80 percent going to programs and research versus administrative and fundraising costs. Their donors understand this, too, and give generously.
What hasn’t changed about our Out of the Darkness Walks is the sense of community built around our collective goal to stop suicide. At the Walks, our dedicated, hardworking volunteers are always at the ready with a smile, a hug and a tissue. The sense of shared purpose makes our Walks healing and hopeful events, at which lifelong connections and friendships often start.