Nearly a year and a half ago, Tara Dennee took on a project that would change her life.
Dennee, of Elbridge, lost her father, Wayne Olmstead, to suicide in July of 2008. In April of 2011, she suffered a breakdown after bottling up her feelings about his death for nearly three years. Last summer, she decided she needed to do something to help people like her father — and herself.
“The stigma needs to end and people need to be aware that mental disorder is no different than cancer or heart disease,” Dennee said. “It can be treated. People shouldn’t be ashamed to get help.”
Dennee dedicated herself to raising awareness about suicide and mental illness. She started Stand Against Suicide (SAS), a nonprofit organization aimed at accomplishing that mission through education and participating in events where the group can promote the cause. Inspired by other walks, on Saturday, Sept. 29, SAS will hold its first community walk at Syracuse’s Inner Harbor.
“I’ve participated in several community/fundraising walks and they always seem to make you feel better,” Dennee said. “You are surrounded with people that really understand what you’ve been through. It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Among those walks to inspire Dennee was the Out of Darkness walk, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Though SAS originally funneled all of its proceeds to the AFSP when it was founded, it recently became a 501(c)3 corporation in its own right. Shortly before SAS attained 501(c)3 status, however, Dennee received word from AFSP representatives that they no longer wanted her help. In an e-mail, Dennee was told that “it would be a conflict of interest” for her to work with the AFSP in any capacity.
Mary Jean Coleman, executive director of the local AFSP chapter, insisted that there was no formal relationship between the two organizations to break.
“Tara volunteered for our Liverpool walk, but there was nothing formal,” Coleman said. “We didn’t work together or anything.”
However, the money raised by SAS originally was channeled to the AFSP. Now that Coleman and Syracuse AFSP Chair Debra Graham (who could not be reached for comment) had closed that avenue, Dennee decided to pursue other options — and SAS’s new mission was born.
The nonprofit now operates on its own, and 100 percent of the profits go back into the organization for outreach and educational programs. After a successful fundraiser this summer, SAS was able to start sending condolence baskets to families nationwide who have lost a loved one to suicide. In addition, starting next month, the nonprofit will begin hosting support groups for those touched by suicide (see sidebar).
The most important change that’s come about since Dennee founded SAS, however, is that people recognize the existence of the organization now.
“Our name is getting out there,” Dennee said. “Our mission is so simple that people can relate to what we are trying to do. People know we are a very small, local organization run by survivors and feel comfortable pouring their hearts out to us. I’ve had so many people call me, email me, message me on Facebook, and tell me how relieved they are that they now have somebody to talk to that really understands. This to me is just priceless. I hope people feel comfort knowing that they aren’t alone. None of us want to be in this secret society of suicide survivors… but we are.”
The walk on Sept. 29 will hopefully further that name recognition, as well as raise more funds for SAS’s programming. The walk begins and ends at the Inner Harbor Amphitheatre, with walkers following Onondaga Lake along the Creekwalk. They’ll pause along Hiawatha Boulevard for a “Stand-Off,” where all walkers will stand hand in hand and share a moment of silence to raise awareness for the cause. Registration and sign in are at 10 a.m. Guest speakers will begin at 10:30 a.m., and there will be a balloon release at around 10:45 a.m. The walk itself begins at 11 a.m. Register at SASEvents.kintera.org.
Dennee said she chose the Inner Harbor for its central, picturesque location.
“It’s just beautiful there,” she said. “The water, the trail, the trees surrounding everything, and the fact that it goes onto Hiawatha Boulevard and we’ll all be seen by traffic going by really makes a difference when we are trying to raise awareness.”
That’s the most important goal: letting people know that suicide is an issue that needs to be discussed, and that there is help for those who need it — people like Dennee’s dad.
“I know deep down he didn’t want to die,” she said. “He wanted to stay here and watch his granddaughter grow up. He wanted to feel healthy again and work alongside of me building racecars. He wanted to be here to help us remodel our house. He loved all that stuff. If there was an organization out there like ours, maybe he would have gotten help. Maybe he would have been able to find a group of people that knew how he felt. I’m sure he felt so alone. I know he felt alone because I’ve been there, too. I just had the resources at my fingertips that he didn’t know existed.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.