With September as Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, RISE Southwest put on a Suicide Awareness Walk Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Beginning in Montezuma Park, the group aimed to show community members that support exists for people who struggle with suicidality or who have lost someone who took their own life.
Cortez residents Derek Streeter and his wife, Corin Wolf, wanted to bring a suicide walk closer to home after the death of Streeter’s brother in 2015. They lived in Denver at the time, where they attended Out of the Darkness, an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that holds walks throughout the nation.
They also attended a suicide awareness walk in Telluride in 2019 after they relocated to Cortez, but because of the pandemic, they didn’t attend a walk for the two following years. That’s when Streeter and Wolf decided to make a suicide walk more accessible for everyone in the community.
“We figured there was a need for it here,” Streeter said. “When we actually started looking into the statistics, suicide rates in Montezuma County are higher than in most (counties) in the state.”
They named it RISE Southwest, which stands for restore, illuminate, support and educate. So far, they have received an abundance of support through community members, volunteers, donations and grants.
The group began as a grassroots project that has grown in the past two years. Arlina Yazzi, who was with the Montezuma County Public Health Department at the time, directed Streeter and Wolf to Katy Maxwell, also with the health department and SAFE Coalition – Suicide Awareness For Everyone. That’s when everything began to fall into place.
RISE Southwest’s team consists of Streeter, Wolf, several members, including Maxwell, from MCPHD, people from Southwest Health System, AXIS members and Dante Downey from Young People in Recovery.
Last year, RISE Southwest raised just under $3,000 with the support of 18 sponsors.
“We were blown away,” Streeter said. “The 150 people who attended included some people that didn’t even know the event was happening. They kind of showed up as we were walking and asked what we were doing and they would just pull over their car and join the walk.”
This year, MCPHD gave RISE Southwest a grant for close to $3,600, which helped enable the group to put ads out in Cortez’s and Durango’s movie theaters, a KSJD radio ad and The Journal.
Sponsors grew to 30 who raised over $4,000 for this year’s walk, on top of the grant from the Health Department.
Streeter said that funds will go toward tote bags that offer moral support with resources and next year’s walk.
They also want to help spread suicide awareness and encouragement, like Friday morning’s suicide forum at Hospice of Montezuma, which offers a variety of bereavement groups.
“I don’t think a lot of people in the community are aware of them, and if they are I think it’s hard for people to talk themselves into going,” Streeter said. “It was hard for me. I started going this year, and that’s many years after my loss. It’s helped big time just to hear other people’s experiences and how grief has changed them.”
Streeter said he estimated that 260 people attended and guest speakers, Amanda O’Conner and Lisa Henry, made the event more impactful with their real life stories.
Imo Succo, program manager for Indigenous Wellbriety Program and a community activist, spoke last year as a guest speaker about her experience and the things she’s lived through. Streeter also spoke last year about his own experience with his brother’s suicide.
The close to one and a half-mile walk, from Montezuma Park to the Cortez Public Library and back to the park, began in the park and participants walked under an arch with ribbons that they wrote messages on to commemorate their loved ones who passed.
Saturday’s event also held 11 resource tables from organizations such as The Grief Center of Southwest Colorado, AXIS, Mancos Wellbeing Project and other groups. Counselors were there if someone needed to process their experience, a craft station for commemorating a loved one, along with a generous breakfast - sausage burritos, a variety of pastries and coffee.
Streeter hopes that RISE Southwest will continue to be an annual event that’s a staple to the community. He hopes the group will continue to get sponsors every year so they can put money back into the community and that it will hopefully bring suicide numbers down.
“Losing someone to suicide is very hard because you often wonder what more you could have done. I know I’m sure there’s people that are still dealing with guilt and remorse, but when you see there’s other people that have gone through the same thing, you eventually get to a place where you accept that,” Streeter said. “I encourage people to constantly check in on their people because I think that can save a lot of lives and help a lot of people in the grieving process as well.”