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Volunteers work to get suicide-prevention program in schools

The Mississippi Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held its 2015 Mississippi Gulf Coast Out of the Darkness Walk in Gulfport. The 2016 walk will be Saturday, Sept. 10, starting at Ken Combs Pier in Gulfport. Board member Theresa Danko, fourth from left, and board chair Sherry Sheffield, second from right, are the volunteers planning the walk.
The Mississippi Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention held its 2015 Mississippi Gulf Coast Out of the Darkness Walk in Gulfport. The 2016 walk will be Saturday, Sept. 10, starting at Ken Combs Pier in Gulfport. Board member Theresa Danko, fourth from left, and board chair Sherry Sheffield, second from right, are the volunteers planning the walk.

Ever heard of the Jason Flatt Act?

If not, you’re not alone.

The act, passed in Mississippi in 2009, mandates suicide-prevention education for all licensed teachers and principals and it began with the 2009-10 school year. It calls for two hours of training.

Board members of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention say in reality, educators could read a pamphlet and satisfy the intent of the law. But that’s not enough, they say.

They plan to ask lawmakers to strengthen and expand the law to require annual training for all educators, and possibly other staff such as bus drivers.

The AFSP is a national nonprofit organization that works to prevent suicide through research, education and advocacy. Every state now has an AFSP chapter.

Mississippi chapter board members believe some school districts are unfamiliar with the state’s required training.

“We are informing them of the law and offering the More Than Sad program,” said Sherry Sheffield, board chair of the state chapter. “I know some school districts recognize it as an issue. They need a program to offer.”

The More Than Sad program, which includes DVDs, informs teachers, students and parents how to be smart about mental health.

Money raised from the AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walk helps the chapter offer the program to schools for free. The Mississippi Coast walk will be Sept. 10, on World Suicide Prevention Day, in Gulfport.

Online registration at afsp.org/mississippi closes at noon Sept. 9. Participants can register at the walk beginning at 8 a.m. The walk will set off at 9 a.m. from the Ken Combs Pier, Courthouse Road and U.S. 90. Activities will be held until noon.

Sheffield, of Wiggins, and board member Theresa Danko of Diamondhead are the volunteers behind the planning of the Coast walk. The goal for the walk is to raise $21,500.

Across the nation, more than 50 Out of the Darkness walks are planned the same day. From now until the end of 2016, nearly 400 walks are scheduled.

Sheffield said she began looking for a program to help stop suicide after losing several friends and co-workers in law enforcement.

The campus police officer at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College at Perkinston also knows suicide is the second-leading cause of death nationally for the age group of the students she helps to protect.

In 2012, she helped organize the state’s first Out of the Darkness Campus Walk, at MGCCC. Through other walks and her volunteer efforts, she got noticed.

The AFSP invited her to attend an advocacy forum in Washington in 2014. It provided a checklist of what had to happen to form a chapter in the state.

“After D.C., I had a mission and a checklist,” she said. “I knew it would be easier to get things done if we had a chapter and organization.”

The chapter formed in August 2015, organized its first walk in Gulfport and has been working to expand its efforts since.

Sheffield has been to D.C. three times to speak to lawmakers. She organized Mississippi’s first Capitol Day and went to Jackson in March.

In August, she and Danko met with lawmakers on the Coast as they prepare for the legislative session in January.

Recruiting volunteers is always a priority, Sheffield said. Sometimes the board just needs help to prepare letters to mail or other tasks.

“We need volunteers,” she said. “Did I say that already?”

To volunteer or to find out more about the state chapter of AFSP, email Sherry Sheffield at sheffield.sherry@gmail.com or Theresa Danko at teedanko@gmail.com.

Mississippi Gulf Coast Out of the Darkness Walk

What: A walk to raise money for suicide-prevention programs

When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10

Where: Ken Combs Pier, Courthouse Road and U.S. 90, Gulfport

Distance: Turnaround is at the Armed Forces Retirement Home. The entire walk is close to a 5K, which is 3.1 miles.

Registration: Online at afsp.org/mississippi through noon Sept. 9. Registration will also be available at the walk starting at 8 a.m.

More information: Check out the events page on Facebook.

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