As the sky filled with blue and red balloons over Prentice Park Saturday morning, silence fell over the participants of Vermillion’s seventh annual Nikki’s Fund 5K walk/run.
With sponsorship from the University of South Dakota and the community of Vermillion, the annual Nikki’s Fund event gathered for a 9 a.m. run/walk to promote suicide prevention awareness on campus and raise money for USD students in crisis.
“There is a stigma attached to talking about depression and suicide, so the goal is to let people know it’s okay to talk about it if they lost a loved one to suicide, ” said Janine Harris, who started the organization after the death of her daughter, Nicole Vallie Harris, who died from suicide June 15, 2005.
“People need to know help is out there,” Harris said.
Nearly 137 people took part in the walk/run, while a number of volunteers worked to prepare prizes for the winners, handed out balloons or helped direct runners around the different scenic routes through Vermillion.
This year’s event was in honor of Stacey Myers, a USD student who died in a car accident June 16, 2012 at the age of 23. Myers donated her time to work with Nikki’s Fund and was on the career path to become a counselor.
More than 25 of Myers’ friends and family were at the event, wearing red shirts with her initials, SLM, and signature hand-written heart on the front. Her father, Bruce Myers, described Stacey as a bright and dynamic person who was passionate to help others through Nikki’s Fund.
“Words can’t describe what my heart and soul feels to see everyone who came out to the event,” Bruce Myers said. “Stacey touched a lot of souls in her time, and she would have lit up to have been here to see this.”
After the run/walk’s completion and award ceremony for top finishers, participants gathered in a large circle to release balloons as the names of lost loved ones were read over the speakers.
As the red and blue balloons turned into specks across the cloud-free sky, Harris made her way around the circle of people, giving each a comforting hug and a thank you. Men, women and children of varying ages were wiping eyes and noses with the ends of sleeves, as the last balloon disappeared out-of-sight.
All proceeds from the Sept. 15 event, including registration fees and donations, go toward Nikki’s Fund to support suicide prevention programs and other mental health needs for USD students. To date, Nikki’s Fund has raised about $25,000.