Sixth annual EMU Walk for Hope raises awareness for mental health

A quilt hangs inside the counseling center at EMU, sharing the message: “Let hope light a fire that no one can put out; I am here to help; stay strong.” The quilt is a collaborative effort created over the first years by participants of Walk for Hope, an annual event of solidarity in the face of depression and suicide on college campuses.

That solidarity is shown by the joining, and joint hosting, of four higher education communities in the region: EMU, James Madison University, Blue Ridge Community College and Bridgewater College. The event averages between 700 and 800 attendees each year.

The message of the walk is that mental illness “is real, you’re not alone, there is hope, and it’s okay to ask for help,” said Pam Comer, EMU’s director of counseling services.The sixth annual Walk for Hope will be Saturday, March 25. Walkers will meet at Yoder Arena in the University Commons. The walk begins at noon with a loop around the Park View neighborhood. Post-walk festivities include snacks, food trucks, collaborative art projects, games for kids, and keynote speaker Dave Romano, a mental health advocate from Minnesota who works for the nonprofit Active Minds. Two years ago, Romano biked across the United States to raise awareness for mental health.

The theme this year is “sunflowers,” thanks to the event’s primary sponsor, the Austin Frazier Memorial Fund. The Frazier family opened their sunflower field  to the community last fall as a fundraiser for the walk. The field of flowers is memorialized in the t-shirts that all participants will receive.

Comer especially loves the art-making part of the event, such as the quilt squares. A second quilt, which is about halfway complete, will be finished at the end of this event.

“It’s a sense of expression without words, as they’re all sitting together, working together,” she says. “We’re all in this together.”

Comer has been on the planning committee since the walk’s inception through the CoachLink program. CoachLink, which connects EMU students with mentors, was initiated by the Frazier family after their son, Austin, passed away in 2009.

A group from all four schools got together to brainstorm – “how do we gather more schools together and make a statement in the community?” The Walk for Hope was born, and has been sponsored by the Austin Frazier Memorial Fund since the first walk in 2012.

“Without that family’s commitment, we wouldn’t have a Walk for Hope,” says Comer. The original planners were intentional about not asking participants to raise funds for the event, which might distract from their purpose. “It’s for students gathering and getting some inspiration and hope.”

Story by Randi B. Hagi