Paddling for suicide prevention

Jackson Gray (left) and BGSU student Tyler Brezina paddling the Ohio River in New Richmond on the outskirts of Cincinnati.

If pitting themselves against the unstoppable force of the Ohio River is what it will take for people to begin talking about suicide prevention, then three young men have passionately picked up their paddles and taken on the task.

More than halfway through their trip, paddling a kayak and a canoe along the entire 981-mile length of the Ohio River, Bowling Green State University junior Tyler Brezina and his two friends from Miami University, Jackson Gray and Quinton Couch, are on track to become the youngest men in history to accomplish that goal.

They aren't afraid to say that it's meant to gain attention for a cause that is close to their hearts.

"The mission behind Race the River 2017 is to raise awareness for mental health and to impact the lives of those affected by suicide...Our hope is to inspire and save lives before it is too late. Even an impact on one individual's life means our mission is a success," the team notes on their Facebook page, "Race The River 2017."

The suicide of their high school friend, James Halley, came as a complete surprise to the trio.

"No one knew that James was struggling. There was no warning," said Sabrina Jewell, the team spokesperson. Halley died in 2014. The mutual friends decided that they had to do something big to raise awareness and help prevent more potential tragedies.

So far, the trip is going well, with only one mishap. There was one day with some severe weather, including high winds, but it went by without incident. At another point, Gray cut his toe on some broken glass. A woman took him to the emergency room, where he received six stitches and antibiotics. The medication then caused a reaction. She then bought him a McDonald's lunch. Kindnesses have been common on the trip.

Keeping their schedule fluid, the team members made a short stop in Cincinnati last week. They were invited to dinner at a survivor family's house. The family had read about the journey on Facebook and wanted to give them a short break with some home cooking.

"The reception and the kindness, with heartfelt messages people have shared.. it's hopeful," Gray said.

Starting in Pittsburgh on May 20, their trip will end in Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River. They expect to finish by the end of this month.

While the trip has been hard work, all three are avid paddlers. Brezina was an Eagle Scout and Gray a diver. The Facebook page shows some of their preparatory training regimen.

More people are finding out about the trip from both traditional and social media. While they've planned to camp most nights, the group has been offered basements and backyards, a full house in Cincinnati and another one in Louisville.

"They were so excited to have a bed and a shower," Jewell said.

In addition to raising awareness for suicide prevention, the Race the River 2017 team is collecting donations for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, which can be reached though its Facebook page, or directly at the AFSP Donerdrive page. As of June 14, they had raised $5,729, which is 82 percent of their $7,000 goal.

Jewell said that the AFSP donations are separate from the team sponsors. Prior to leaving, there was a Go Fund Me campaign, together with funds and equipment provided by team sponsors, Oxford Ohio's Bagel & Deli, and Seaview Outfitters. They borrowed the canoe from the Miami University Outdoor Pursuit Center, but had to buy the kayak, which they intend to sell at the end.

"For our Race the River team, suicide is a personal issue. I lost my best friend to suicide during my freshman year in college. For those dealing with a loss of a loved one to suicide, we sympathize and want to make an impact. Though his death was tragic, it inspired me to help those who are also affected." Gray noted on the AFSP donation page.

Halley's mother sprinkled some of his ashes in the Ohio River at the start of the trip, so he could be part of the voyage.

"Grieving from a suicide loss is a lot different. It's a different kind of grief. Any time we can get information out about suicide, that's great, because it affects so many people," said Lisa Myers, co-chair of the Wood County Suicide Prevention Coalition.

The Wood County Suicide Prevention Coalition has a Suicide Survivors Support Group that meets at the NAMI Wood County building on 541 W. Wooster St. More information can be found at http://www.woodcountysuicideprevention.org/who-we-help.html.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.

Follow the journey of Brezina, Gray and Couch on their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/RaceTheRiver2017/.

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