Centered around hope
By Kana Coonce
KEWAUNEE COUNTY – Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in Wisconsin, in numbers that have climbed in recent years.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, one suicide affects up to an estimated 135 other individuals.
For Wendy Vlies — the organizer of Heroes for Hope Suicide Awareness Walk —that statistic hits closer to home.
In 2019, Vlies lost her 35-year-old son, Lance, to suicide.
“He had an infectious smile,” Vlies reminisced. “He always had a smile whenever you saw him.”
Vlies and Lance were close and his sudden death struck Vlies particularly hard.
“He was such a good son, a good father, a good friend. All his friends were shocked that he did it. None of us really saw it coming,” she said.
After Lance’s death, Vlies dedicated her time to research — studying the issue, attending local suicide prevention workshops and seeing speakers.
Then, after her initial wish to put on an event was delayed by COVID-19, the loss of a friend and a desire to help out the family spurred Vlies to organize the first Heroes for Hope Suicide Awareness Walk in 2021.
“You always wind up finding something that you are compelled to do. I had a compulsion to get the word out there, and I think that’s what helped me with my struggles,” said Vlies.
“I try to keep his memory alive for his kids and do the best we can,” said Vlies.
At the time of Lance’s death, his three children were 5, 8, and 9 years old, respectively.
“There are times we all struggle, but… I have my faith that I turn to to help me through it. Where some get angry, I turned to God, because he was what would help me get through,” Vlies recalled.
Though she and her family discussed a few different names for the organization, Vlies felt that a name containing the word ‘hope’ stood out the most to her.
“We think there is hope, and by spreading the word of awareness, it’s our hope that they’ll seek help and make that call, and if we can get one person to make that call, we feel like we are kinda heroes,” said Vlies.
The walk takes place during September, as it is Suicide Awareness Month.
While the family considered putting on a run instead, Vlies thought the social nature of a walk — specifically the ability to chat intimately with another person while doing so — made it a fitting activity to raise mental health awareness.
“It was kind of thrown together,” Vlies said. “Nothing big. No t-shirts.”
Despite the event’s small scale, it had a turnout of 54 people.
The next year, turnout was 78, and with the addition of sponsors, Heroes for Hope earned enough money to give out two $500 scholarships to graduating high school seniors pursuing a career in the mental health field.
“I want to keep his memory alive by doing this,” said Vlies. “There’s a need for help. So many people do suffer from depression or some mental health reasons, and there just isn’t enough people out there to help. There are waiting lists for people that do need to see someone that just get put on a waiting list.
“That’s where our money is,.”
With a current shortage of mental health professionals and a rising need for mental health care, Vlies hopes to do her part in building a brighter world for the people who need it.
This year, Heroes for Hope will once again be using the proceeds from the suicide awareness walk to fund scholarships, which will be open to each of the county high schools: Algoma High School, Kewaunee High School and Luxemburg-Casco High School.
“Since I’ve started my walk, it has gotten bigger each year, but that’s just a foot in the sand,” Vlies said.
“I never thought that it would go this far. I was hoping it would go this far, but I’m glad that it’s getting out there, that people are aware.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
In 2022, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline run by the DHS became the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
“A lot of people have used that number since it’s come into effect,” said Vlies. “It seems lately like there are more suicides happening. I just want them to know that there is help for them out there if they want to call that number, if they want to talk to somebody.”
This year, Heroes for Hope will once more present a speaker on suicide prevention.
Vlies credited Kewaunee County Sheriff Matthew Joski for the idea, saying that his presentations on mental health and suicide prevention were “a big influence” for starting Heroes for Hope — and for their name.
“It all centers around the big word — hope,” Vlies said.
In the future, Vlies said that Heroes for Hope would like to get speakers into schools to talk to students about suicide prevention.
Developing a task force
In addition, she would like to see the county adopt a suicide awareness task force like Door County’s Prevent Suicide Door County – Nathan Wilson Coalition, ideally with a mix of members knowledgeable on the topic and members of the public.
“As of now in Kewaunee County, I believe this is the only thing happening, is this walk,” she said. “I think it’s important that people are all on the same page.”
The Third Annual Heroes for Hope Suicide Awareness Walk will take place Saturday, Sept. 9, at 8 a.m., at Fireman’s Park in Luxemburg.
Registration includes a t-shirt if submitted by Aug. 14.
may also register in person on the day of the walk.
The registration form can be found on Facebook via the Heroes for Hope Suicide Awareness Walk page, or contact Vlies at (920) 255-0153.