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How I Became a Chief Hope Hugger at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walks

10 Mar 2023 — 4 min read

By Jaclyn Haber

New York Long Island Chapter volunteer Jaclyn Haber smiling with a white t-shirt that says, "Chief Hope Hugger."

One Foot in Front of the Other: Training for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Overnight Walk in Memory of Our Son

I really needed this year's Walk.

My first introduction to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was through the Out of the Darkness Community Walks, which take place all over the country. The Walks are an opportunity for people who have been affected by suicide – survivors of suicide loss, people with lived experience, and anyone who wants to support the cause – to raise awareness, funds, and also to join a supportive and understanding community. Since attending that first Walk in 2016, I've returned every year to volunteer and make lasting connections.

I first got involved with AFSP because of my own person struggles with mental health. Leading up to the 2022 Long Island Community Walk on October 25th, I’d been silently struggling with heavy emotions for a couple of months. Even though I have an amazing support system, I was feeling alone and like I couldn't tell anyone. I didn't even fully tell my therapist how bad it was until recently. Dealing with a mental health challenge isn’t easy, even when you're a suicide prevention advocate, which is why I keep showing to Walks every year.

That’s what this most recent Walk was all about. Hundreds of people gathered together for one united front: to stop suicide. I've been volunteering with AFSP for the past five years, and while we remind others that, “You are not alone, you matter, you are important,” we can sometimes forget it ourselves. That day, I remembered these things for myself, or at least took an amazing step toward remembering.

While setting up at the 2021 Walk, I noticed a piece of paper that said “Free Hugs" on the table. I'm not sure who left it there, whether it was another walker or volunteer, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. Being someone who thrives on human connection, I asked our chapter director if I could tape the sign on my volunteer shirt while I walked around collecting 50/50 raffles. She responded with an enthusiastic, "YES!" Consequently, I got some awesome hugs throughout the day as Walks participants saw the sign and came up to me.      

For many who come to the Walks, it’s their first time getting involved with AFSP. They may have just lost a loved one to suicide recently, heard about the Walk from a friend, and this is the first time they’ve found themselves around so many other people with a personal connection to the cause. I still remember my very first Walk. My friend who also struggles with mental health asked me to tag along with her. As positive as my experience was, I didn't know many people there, and on top of that I also had some social anxiety. I felt a bit overwhelmed at first. But at the end of the Walk, I remember giving my friend a big bear hug to thank her for introducing me to the event. Getting a hug from my friend was exactly what I needed. As I walked along the beach, surrounded by so much love and hope, I knew I needed to be more involved. As an AFSP volunteer I want to support everyone I can, and I discovered I could do that with something as simple as giving a hug!

This year, our chapter surprised me with quite possibly the best honor: Chief Hope Hugger! The chapter even made me a special t-shirt with "Chief Hope Hugger" printed on it. (I only let the title go to my head for a second.) I lost count after what felt like 1,000 hugs. Every single hug felt different, but everyone’s heart was the same. I got group hugs, soft hugs, tight hugs, happy hugs, sad hugs, long hugs – but every single hug was one of hope. There was one woman who started crying for a second. She said "Sorry," and I said, “No, no, please don’t,” and then I hugged her tighter, which for some reason made me start crying, too. In that moment, we both knew that we weren’t alone, without having to say a single word.

People were thanking me for hugging them, but really, I need to thank them. Giving to this cause has given back so much to me. Not only do I get the joy of being able to help others, but they also support me in return.

This year's Community Walk was just something else. My heart is so beyond full. Your life matters, and there are so many people that want you here. If you're struggling with suicidal thoughts or behavior, or if someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help, and hold on to hope. If you took a picture hugging me, please share it! I can't wait to hug all of you again next year.

I would have been happy with any volunteer position, but this was not just any position to me. While I was there to offer hugs and help comfort other people, I ended up receiving comfort myself. Thank you to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Long Island Chapter for another amazing Community Walk, and thank you to all those who donated! I'd also like to give a shout-out to Phil Bianco for making me a special t-shirt. It meant the world to me.

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