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Lilly’s Lope for Hope returned to Philomath for the sixth straight year Saturday morning and based on the response from participants and sponsors, it’s stronger than ever.

Beyond the opportunity for runners to get on a 5-kilometer course and organizations to spread the word about their causes and services, the Lope is all about saving the lives of teenagers, removing the stigma associated with mental health issues and helping pay for programs that make their world a little safer.

Lilly’s Lope for Hope emerged out of a dark day in October 2013 when 14-year-old Philomath student and Blodgett resident Lilly Stagner committed suicide. In the following months, the family turned the tragedy into an event with goals of spreading a message of hope.

It’s a message that’s not lost on Philomath’s youth.

“I think it should be a reminder of how this is a real problem that we’re having to deal with nowadays with suicide and depression with teens,” 15-year-old Philomath High freshman Ty May, Lilly’s cousin, said when asked what he hopes people think about when the Lope comes around every year. “I feel like it’s a thing that people should jump on and go help out with the whole suicide prevention action.

“I don’t think it should be a reminder of my cousin’s death, Lilly — we don’t want to look at it that way because that just brings a lot of heartache to the family,” he added. “I think it should be, looking forward, how can we prevent this from happening again to different people?”

Since Lilly’s Lope for Hope was established, it appears likely that lives have been saved. Marlee Heiken, a 15-year-old PHS sophomore, stepped in when one of her friends had a crisis.

“One of my friends posted something years ago on social media — basically, a good-bye post,” she said. “From Lilly’s Lope, I knew this was something I should know about and I called her aunt and the police and she’s still alive.”

She’s still alive — that’s the bottom line.

“I’ve dealt with people where they do the cutting thing, they cut their arms, and it’s hard to watch,” May said. “It’s hard for me to go see that happening, so I have taken people and gone and sat down with them. It’s a lot easier if you have a friend with you to go and talk with the counselor than just by yourself.

“I’ve gone and talked to counselors myself because there are hard times," he added. "I feel like it’s a great idea to go and see a counselor just to get your mind straight.”

Heiken said suicide was a subject she knew nothing about before Lilly’s Lope came along.

“I think it’s a lot more talked about and addressed than it used to be,” said Heiken, who has volunteered at every Lope and missed a junior varsity volleyball tournament to be there this year. “I think a lot more kids are hearing that suicide is not the answer and there are ways to get help.”

Dorian Gagnon, a 19-year-old who graduated from Philomath High last spring and was good friends with Lilly, believes the event and its programs can provide light in the dark world of teen depression.

“We had a whole bunch of classes together and we would always talk,” he said. “We’d meet up after school on Wednesdays when she was in high school and I was in middle school and we’d talk all the time. She was just one of the nicest people. ... She was in a dark place, but this is why we do the Lope — to let people know there is hope and there is a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.”

The event funds Lilly’s Grant for Guidance, which provides help to Philomath School District students who can’t afford to access mental health counseling. Various programs have grown out of Lilly’s Lope, such as Inspired Day, which celebrates kindness, hope, optimism and love and pays for a top motivational speaker to share messages of strength, dreams and courage.

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At the middle school level, the Lope has sponsored HERO Challenge, an anti-bullying program with curriculum designed to increase students’ sense of personal power and courage.

“Ever since we’ve started this, this has done nothing but grow and grow and help schools,” Gagnon said. “I know there are some schools that don’t even have counselors who know how to help with the situation. With this, it has given so many schools the funding to do that.”

Gagnon has seen the benefits at the local level.

“I know with Philomath, they’ve had some of the most amazing councilors and they’ve helped so much; it definitely helps for sure,” he said. “I think kids who didn’t know Lilly, they’ve seen the impact that this caused and it lets them know that they can also be the help that others need.”

Organizer Paula May said the number of online registrations for the run doubled this year and donations through sponsorships were up significantly. The nonprofit Philomath Schools Foundation protects and administers the fund.

“It is a community event where I feel like we come together as a community to let kids know they are important and valued,” Paula May said. “That’s what I want people to come away from it is knowing how important they are and their life is valuable and suicide shouldn’t be an option.”

She can also give examples of personal experiences when a child was helped.

“I’ll get phone calls from kids that say, ‘I saw something on Instagram and I think this person is going to commit suicide and what should I do?’" Paula May said. “That’s prompted some discussion with local law authorities and also with the school districts and how do we access that person quickly to make sure somebody gets it caught in time?”

Those types of situations have occurred a few times over the years.

“It’s been amazing to see kids know what to look for in signs of people thinking about suicide and they’re going and telling somebody and they’re talking about it,” Paula May said. “It’s something that they can recognize now and they know it’s more important to speak out about it and to get help for it than to keep secrets. I think if anything, it’s helping with some of that stigma that’s suicide and mental health has had forever.”

Her son, Ty, knows the importance of suicide awareness.

“Teens deal with depression, it’s a real problem that people don’t look at the way we probably should,” he said. “It’s a hard subject, but it’s something that needs to be dealt with.”

Keeping the message in the forefront of a troubled teen’s mind is important.

“I think it is a good thing to know that there’s people supporting them and they’re not alone,” said Philomath eighth-grader Owen Heiken, 13. “I hope the message gets through.”

Gagnon said counseling helped him heal after Lilly’s death.

“It’s helped me move on and I can help others, too, and that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “I now know that there is stuff I can do to help others see that light when they don’t see it.”

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