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Why I Return: Over a Decade of Volunteering With the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

March 20, 2024 – 5 min read

By Dennis Lasley, Chair of AFSP’s Chapter Leadership Council

The author, Dennis Lasley, another childhood friend, and Sean Ferguson, all smiling and laughing. They're each holding a trophy they made for the soccer team they volunteered and coached for.

National Volunteer Week takes place April 21 – April 27, 2024. It is an annual opportunity to consider the ways we as individuals may play a part in making the world better in relation to a cause we care about. For the last 15 years, I have chosen to devote some of my time and energy to something that has impacted me personally and which is currently the 11th leading cause of death in our country: suicide.

Like so many Americans, I have felt the devastating impact of suicide. Like so many Americans, I was oblivious to the pain and struggles my best friend was experiencing. I had no idea he was battling depression. In December of 2008, I received some difficult news. It was the call to let me know my friend Sean had died by suicide. 

In the months that followed, I went through a myriad of emotions; sadness, confusion, and anger to name a few. I was left grasping for an understanding. The void left behind seemed insurmountable and the question of “why” echoed endlessly in my mind. 

Through this, I learned that there was an organization specifically dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) does this by educating the public about mental health and suicide prevention; advocating for impactful public policies that can save lives; providing care and support for survivors of suicide loss; and by funding scientific research enabling us to discover practical strategies for preventing future loss of life to this leading cause of death.

The way I first got involved with AFSP, which has local chapters in every state, was by participating in an Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk: an annual event taking place in a different host city each year, in which people literally walk from dusk ‘till dawn to raise awareness and funds, and send the message that suicide can no longer be left to the shadows. Little did I know that those first steps would mark the beginning of a transformative journey for me, spanning over 15 years, with no end in sight. (I should point out that the annual Overnight is just one of the Out of the Darkness Walk events people take part in throughout the year.)

Showing up to that first event, I had no expectations. That was probably just as well, because words can’t do this event justice. From the moment I arrived, I was enveloped by an overwhelming sense of warmth and acceptance from the volunteers: people who had shown up to help organize things, welcome participants, and offer support and encouragement to the Walkers along the route. As someone who didn’t yet know much about suicide, and had only felt its painful impact, I felt as though I was being embraced by a thousand caring arms as I navigated through the evening. The empathy and compassion radiating from these volunteers served as a testament to the values of the organization they were volunteering for. I knew I wanted to be more than just a participant — I wanted to be an integral part of this compassionate community; this supportive family. 

As I delved deeper into the work of AFSP, I realized that my desire to belong was just the beginning. I discovered within myself a newfound passion — a burning determination to effect change and champion the cause of suicide prevention. I recognized the need to equip myself with the knowledge and skills necessary to save lives and offer hope to those in crisis. Moreover, after hearing that another way some members of the AFSP community chose to volunteer was through public policy advocacy, I realized I felt compelled to join them in engaging in meaningful conversations with elected officials, advocating for policies that prioritize mental health and suicide prevention on the societal level. 

It was at this juncture that I made the decision to become an AFSP Volunteer Advocate. I recognized that this role would not only allow me to amplify my voice as a champion of change, but also empower me to directly impact policies and practices surrounding mental health and suicide prevention. 

Volunteering at Walks and through advocacy are just a couple of the ways people choose to volunteer through AFSP. Some get trained to become presenters of suicide prevention education programs that are brought to schools, workplaces, and other places in communities. Others help provide warmth, understanding and support for people who have lost a loved one. There are too many ways to list; I always recommend those who are interested to simply reach out to their local AFSP chapter to learn about initiatives going on in their community and how they can get involved. (You don’t have to immediately volunteer; you can just connect, and meet others near you who have some connection to the cause. If you’re someone who has been affected by suicide and has felt isolated in your experience, I can promise: chances are, you will no longer feel alone.)

Through my years of volunteering with AFSP, I have witnessed firsthand the profound impact that collective action can have in the fight against suicide. I have seen lives transformed and futures rewritten through the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers and advocates. Each step taken, each conversation had, brings us closer to a world where suicide is no longer a leading cause of death. 

As I reflect on my journey with AFSP, I am filled with a deep sense of gratitude  for the chance to make a difference in the lives of others and for the unwavering support of the AFSP community. I am committed to continuing this journey driven by passion, fueled by hope, and guided by the belief that together we can create a world where every life is valued, and the knowledge that suicide is often preventable.

In memory of Sean and in solidarity with all those affected by suicide, I return  to Walk, to advocate, and to champion the cause of suicide prevention. In doing so, I find purpose, healing, and a renewed sense of hope for the future. As we approach National Volunteer Week #NVW, won’t you consider volunteering with us, sharing your story and lending your voice to the cause? Thank you to the thousands of volunteers who have walked this journey before and alongside me. Without you, this incredible work couldn’t be done. To find your local chapter and to learn more, click here. Take that first step. Join the AFSP community and family.