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Katherine Mulokey and Debbie Lebson Jacobs at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Mulokey and Jacobs are part of Team Tikvah (Hebrew word for Hope) in the Out of Darkness walk for suicide prevention. (Photo: Monique Calello/The News Leader)

STAUNTON – Because of COVID-19, this year the Shenandoah Valley Out of Darkness walk will be an experience versus a walk. 

Markita Madden, chair of the program, said they are walking in our area because some communities are not able to due to high COVID-19 positivity rates. 

The group worked with the City of Staunton and Staunton Parks & Recreation to make the event as safe as possible. 

Instead of coming together in one large group, teams will walk over two days this year. The two-day walk will happen 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10-11, at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton. 

They will live-stream the opening ceremony this year at the Gypsy Hill Park bandstand before walkers begin to arrive at the park to help diminish large gatherings of people.

Volunteers on hand at the park will be there to greet walkers, provide resources and offer support if anyone needs it.

There will also be a special memorial display at the park along with signage and information on COVID-19 safety guidelines.

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As of last week, they Valley group was approaching 250 registered participants.

“In light of COVID, we are asking people to pre-register for their time,” said Madden. “We are asking teams to walk in groups of 10 or less and to allow six feet between the groups.”

If you’re walking with your immediate family, it’s not as restrictive, said Madden. But overall they want to make sure that all safety guidelines are followed throughout the event. All people walking must wear masks, use hand sanitizer and practice social distancing.

“Other communities weren’t as fortunate to move forward,” Madden said. “We will be making posters to put up using the CDC guidelines.”

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As chair, Madden is working the details out on scheduling time for the teams. She said it will probably be every 30 minutes to an hour for each team to begin their walk.

“We do have some volunteers from the National Guard who will be helping to direct everyone and ensure the groups don’t get too large,” she said.

If they notice people gathering, those volunteers will help disperse it.

“We’re really working hard and trying to think ahead of all of the scenarios,” said Madden.

Anyone can register up to the day of the walk. Even on that day, people can still participate.

This year, they are trying to make everything as contact-less as possible and pushing people to register online. If they don’t register online, they ask that participants check in with them upon arrival.

“We know it’s been a very tough year for everyone,” said Madden.

In the early part of the year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention tried to extend themselves as a resource due to the struggles so many people faced with the virus pandemic.

For AFSP, this is their largest fundraiser, said Madden. And it takes money to provide resources, she said.

“We appreciate that people recognize that our mental health is important right now and people are still willing to support us.”

AFSP focuses on prevention by helping to educate people on the signs to stop suicide. 

Madden, a loss survivor, lost two brothers and her father to suicide.

“In late July, my uncle who had end stage COPD, took his own life,” she shared. “I believe COVID played a big part of that.”

One of their biggest programs to help others is Talk Saves Lives. Since they only do this program in person, this year they shifted to an online format so that it could continue during the pandemic. 

“It takes a toll on us all,” said Madden of suicide.

The more she reaches out to others to support the program, the more she discovers that almost everyone is touched one way or another by suicide. 

To participate or to donate, please visit: Shenandoah Valley Out of Darkness.

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