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Sandy Journal

Alta cheerleaders bring light to Out of Darkness walk

Oct 24, 2019 03:24PM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High cheerleaders support walkers at the Out of Darkness suicide awareness walk in Liberty Park. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

The cheerleaders waved their pom-poms and students joined in circling Liberty Park. It could have looked like a typical school event, but instead, it was an event that reached nearly 7,000 area residents who walked in support of suicide prevention and awareness.

The Out of Darkness walk, created by the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, was chaired by Shari Elliott, who lost her son to suicide July 15, 2013.

“The biggest thing is people are afraid to talk about it and we hope to break that stigma that holds people back,” she said. “Our first goal is participation; second is fundraising. Our kids are dealing with a lot of stuff on their phones with social media that wasn’t the norm years ago. We want to give them hope and have them connect with others who understand, can help, relate and have been there.”

While the fundraising can help in investing in creating educational programs, advocate for public policy and support survivors of suicide loss, the focus, Elliott said, is to encourage involvement.

That’s one reason Hillcrest High social studies teacher David Veenstra joined members of the school’s 40-member Hope Squad and participate at the walk — to serve as a role model.

“It’s important for kids to know they have support and to bring this issue out to the public,” he said. “We need to be willing to talk about it.” 

During the event, walkers could choose to wear beads, each symbolizing a message, or perhaps they themselves have struggled or have lost someone from suicide, Elliott said.

“Schools didn’t prepare students and my son was 15 when he began to shut down. I can see and know others’ stories by the beads. I’ve worn beads to remember my son and complete strangers have come up to me and given me a hug, without a word spoken. There’s a bond,” she said.

Elliott also said it has become easier for students to find help with the recent introduction of the statewide SafeUT app, which provides real-time crisis intervention with counselors to youth through texting as well as a confidential tip message to school administrators on bullying, threats, violence and depression.

“It’s a crucial tool for adolescents since many of them have cell phones,” she said.

Hillcrest High sophomore Jacob Soto said he is familiar with the app as a member of the Hope Squad, a student group that serves as the “eyes and ears” of the school. His focus is to befriend his classmates.

“Middle school was really hard; people said all sorts of rude comments. I realized that others can go through that and wanted to help others feel more comfortable at school,” he said. “Everyone needs a friend, someone to talk to and so that’s why I’m here — just to support other people and help them.”

That’s also why Alta High cheerleaders got involved during the Out of the Darkness walk.

“We want to show we care,” freshman Kynzie Henriod said.

Cheer squad member Bailee Selders agrees.

“We want to support the walk; it’s a good cause, and we want to support everyone,” she said.

Alta cheer team parent Leigh Warby said the subject reaches all students.

“It has an impact on them,” she said. “Just feeling left out — they all have gotten so many texts and have seen the effects of being left behind. We want to be supportive, to build up community.”

Other organizations, community groups and individuals took part in the walk, which had an estimated 3,000 people sign up on the walk day, and afterward was cleaned up by Skyline High students.

“We’re outgrowing Liberty Park,” Elliott said. “We’re opening up conversations. It’s a good thing, but we’re going to have to look for another spot.”