• First-time event brought in about $14,000 for suicide prevention, mental health awareness
by Jim Boyle
Before they walked, ran, biked and in-line skated, participants in the first Thumbs Up High 5K stretched, moved around to stay warm, heard speakers and released 300 yellow balloons in River’s Edge Commons Park in downtown Elk River to remember those they have lost to suicide.
As the balloons took off for the heavens, tears fell again for some of the 500-plus people attending the event to raise awareness for mental illness and suicide prevention. Tears gave way to feelings of love, support and hope out on the race route.
“There have been so many people that have lost somebody,” said Katie Shatusky, one of the organizers of the event. “It was healing for me and a lot of people to let a balloon go. It was like sending a little message to heaven.”
The Thumbs Up High 5K attracted for more than 500 runners, walkers, in-line skaters and bikers, and more than $14,000 was raised. At least $5,000 if not more will be turned over to the Elk River Yellow Ribbon suicide prevention group at Elk River High School to further the cause of suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
“People have survived because of Yellow Ribbon, for sure.”
That people survive depression and other mental illnesses is one of the Thumbs Up High 5K goals. Another is to promote awareness of how to spot and care for mental health issues people face. Saturday’s event was also about healing.
“What an amazing event,” said Judy Dahlheimer, who lost her husband and the father of her three children to suicide five years ago. “To let people come together who have gone through this and to keep working together is a great thing to do.”
The participants were broken into four heats (bikers, in-line skaters, runners and walkers), and there was a 1K for younger individuals.
Walkers took in the sights and sounds of a crisp fall day, which started out in the high 30s but reached 40 degrees by the start of the 5K. There were messages along the sidewalk, scrawled the night before with chalk.
Dahlheimer spotted a message written by her niece Jessica Hackenmeuller. It warmed her heart. The night before the event, she contemplated if she even wanted to go and dredge up any painful memories.
She was glad to be invited to take pictures by Hackenmeuller and she knew at least one of her children would want to participate. But on Oct. 3 doubts began to surface.
But one thing she has learned since her husband’s death is it’s important to keep moving.
“People don’t know what to do with the pain,” she said. “You want to remember (your loved one), but you worry it will bring more pain.”
The first anniversary of her husband’s death was among the worst days.
“It was like reliving that day all over again,” she said.
But the Thumbs Up High 5K was uplifting right from the start, she said.
“I knew right away it would be a good thing,” she said. “I was ready for it.”
The event itself, she said, helps take away the stigma. For the Dahlheimers, it was the sight of a bald eagle that gave them the belief their husband and father was looking down over the them on that day. Bald eagles have been present on some of the hardest days and some of the biggest days in the family, like a 16th birthday celebration.
Judy remembers seeing a bald eagle while she and her husband were out for a walk near their home in Howard Lake shortly before his death. Another was in Elk River on Oct. 4.
“He sat there in the tree the whole time,” Dahlheimer said of the eagle in downtown Elk River during the opening ceremonies.
She released a balloon in memory of her husband and took pictures as her niece had asked. She found it therapeutic.
“I love my camera,” she said. “It helps me see there’s beauty to be found in life.”
Yellow Ribbon’s beginnings
Howard remembers when Yellow Ribbon was started at Elk River High School about 15 years ago. He remembers the girl that started it. He said it was real personal mission for her, and it quickly took hold.
As a counselor, he watched it grow while working in the background. Then in 1999 a student of his asked him to get more involved in it.
“I couldn’t say no,” Howard said, noting he was the adviser for the group his last five years at Elk River High School. He left it with students Annie Christensen and Myah Christenson knowing it was in good hands. The two high school juniors are co-presidents of Yellow Ribbon, which put a lot of time into helping the 5K become a success.
The organization itself has made a habit of getting in front of health classes and over to Salk Middle School to present students information on suicide prevention.
“They make people aware there are people out there that care,” Howard said.
Shatusky and current Yellow Ribbon members hope to bring this to a new level. There are already plans for a second Thumbs Up High 5K.
Christensen and Christenson say whatever money their group gets will be used to give back to the community, as they see it as coming from the community, so that’s where they want to funnel it.
Among the group’s plans are a community event in which a speaker is brought in to address the community. Partnerships with others schools and creating additional suicide prevention efforts will be explored.
The Elk River High School group now numbers 93, and more students have expressed interest.
Yellow Ribbon assembles panel discussions in health classes that prove effective. Speakers touch students with their stories and tears are wiped away. When students are asked if they have dealt with similar issues in their lives or with people they know, hands go up and people talk.
“It lifts the heaviness off their chest to talk,” Christensen said.
Shatusky said there are other possibilities being considered, too.
“People need someplace to go with their pain,” Dahlheimer said.