Walk with a mission

© 2017-The Torrington Telegram

PLATTE COUNTY – Few of us will ever know the satisfaction that Terresa Humphries-Wadsworth and Kelly Eckerdt experienced after walking 400 miles across Wyoming to bring awareness to something they believe in. 

But far too many of us know why their journey was so important. We know because suicide has no boundaries or limitations. It bypasses race or religion, age or nationality, and it has touched us all in some way throughout our lives – taken a family member or friend, a co-worker or even a public figure. It is a thief that slips in to the darkest of our days, stealing lives from those whose vision has narrowed so much that faith, hope and even love can no longer be seen or felt.

Friends as well as co-workers, Terresa, from Cody, and Kelly, of Powell, know all about suicide prevention. Teresa is actually Dr. Terresa, the past Director of Statewide Suicide Prevention for the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming, funded through the Wyoming Health Department. With a doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from Texas A&M University, she has practiced in Wyoming since 2002 and has more than 25 years of experience specializing in rural community mental health and substance abuse treatment. Much of her work has been as a clinician and community change advocate and she has led suicide prevention efforts at the community, regional, state and national levels. Her accomplishments are many, including developing an innovative suicide treatment approach for rural communities, building a statewide web of community prevention interventions linked, but independent, and developing innovative projects that combine emerging research with frontline services. Her most recent projects include the development of WySER (Wyoming Suicide Epidemiology Research), creating guidelines for mixing suicide screening with substance abuse assessment, and growing the statewide infrastructure to support response to the legislative mandate to provide suicide prevention education to teachers and administrators (Jason Flatt Act). Her work has attracted the attention of the Iowa Governor’s Council, the American Association of Suicidology, the Suicide Prevention Research Center and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Kelly was also employed through the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming as a Suicide Prevention Support Specialist. It is a job title that couldn’t have been more appropriately assigned. Originally planning to also walk the distance step for step next to her best friend, Kelly had to change her role in the project as a problem with her foot ended up requiring surgery this past spring. But physical limitations or not, Kelly was not about to sit on the sidelines and she became Teressa’s support person in the truest sense of the word. In addition to providing emotional support, Kelly and her husband Roy, took care of the peripherals—additional transportation, accommodations, first aid, food and supplies and a long list of others—all critical to the success of the journey. And although it wasn’t the role Kelly had intended to fill, she realized it was where she needed to be and willingly took Plan B in stride. She quickly pointed out, “We may have the same end goal, but my journey just looked different than Terresa’s.” 

Kelly’s situation was also a graphic demonstration of the walk’s message—that when one person has a challenge, they need the support and help of another. It is the link sometimes missing in someone’s life that can lead to suicide. And it is that empty, lonely, hopeless feeling that often drives that final and very permanent action—the feeling Terresa and Kelly want to address. 

Their stop in Wheatland on September 12th was the last gathering point before the final three-day push that would bring them to the end of the walk at the Veteran’s Home in Cheyenne on the 15th.

But Wheatland was also likely on of the most memorable as residents from Goshen and Platte Counties joined forces to promote and recognize the efforts of these two women and their cause. With suicide being an epidemic problem for thousands of soldiers returning from service around the world, the Walk Across Wyoming drew the attention of State VFW Commander Bill Cain and his wife Pam, who happens to be the current state VFW Auxiliary President. After adopting their theme “Serving Together” for their time in office, the Cains wanted to support the Walk Across Wyoming in any way possible, especially to draw attention to the growing suicide problem in the military. “We are losing young men and women needlessly—they survive combat conditions, only to come home to fight the internal battles of acclimating to civilian life, often exacerbated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. 

Bill and Pam promoted Walk Across Wyoming through local VFW contacts and media and organized a welcome cookout for Terresa and Kelly. Well--received and supported locally, members of one of the classes of the Wyoming Cowboy ChalleNGe Academy brought out two groups of cadets to walk with Terresa and Kelly, covering the miles between Glendo and Wheatland on September 11th. It was an eye-opening experience for the cadets and left an impression on Terresa and Kelly as well.

As they headed off the interstate at the north Wheatland exit, they were greeted by even more cadets from Cowboy ChalleNGe as well as riders from the Southeast Wyoming Pony Express Association. With a Wheatland Police Department escort car leading the way, the cadets and Pony Express riders fell in line behind Terresa and made their way into Wheatland through the downtown area where they were joined by members of Wyoming Dance and Wheatland High School’s marching band. They continued on to Lewis Park where a reception barbecue was held and as they came into the park, even more Academy cadets waited, holding signs they had handmade. Messages of encouragement and hope such as “Keep Your Head Up and Never Give Up”, “Walk for Those Who Need the Talk!”, “Don’t Sit in Silence”, “Walk On, Stay Strong”, Don’t Be Scared, Just Enjoy the Ride”, and “Take Five to Fight for Lives!” 

Members of the Wheatland, Guernsey and Torrington VFW Posts and their Auxiliaries hosted a barbecue with enough food for all and a custom-made cake iced in tennis shoes and the words “Walk in
My Shoes.” 

Terresa spoke to those gathered, first acknowledging the support and hospitality of everyone but then taking the conversation to a more
serious level. 

She explained that Walk Across Wyoming was not about raising money—it was about bringing awareness to the issue of suicide and what can be done to prevent it. As heads in the crowd nodded in agreement, it was easy to see how many families are touched by the problem and the emotion it stirs, even well after the experience. “Life is about your relationships,’ said Terresa. “We have to take care of each other and when we see a potential problem, we have to speak up—silence is
a killer.” 

After a good night’s sleep at a local motel, it was back out on the road for Terresa and Kelly for the final 90 miles. Bill and Pam Cain joined Terresa and walked from Wheatland out to the Laramie exit.

Reflecting on the event, Pam commented, “It was an honor to have walked with Terresa and support her cause. Bill and I walked because we very easily could have become one of the statistics. Terresa walked a mile in his honor early on, with the dedication I submitted because he had the courage to reach out and stay with us. We still lose 20-plus Veterans a day to suicide. One of our Wyoming Auxiliary sisters just lost her son on September 11th. The walk was just a piece to the puzzle of helping those that may be contemplating suicide and just because the walk is over does not mean that we quit talking about suicide and educating people to be aware of the signs and be willing to listen and reach out and share who they can reach out to for help. The local VFW and Auxiliaries across the state got involved because our VFW National Commander and President’s special project this year is Mental Health and it is part of our hospital program to educate our communities on “Know the
5 Signs.” 

Terresa was appreciative and overwhelmed with the support she was given on her journey and the VFW and Auxiliary were happy to support her and suicide
awareness. 

On Friday, Terresa and Kelly completed their journey, walking in to the Veteran’s Hospital and Home in Cheyenne. And though she’d spent a great deal of time using an ATV to carry out all the support chores, Kelly joined Terresa for the final mile—a testament of her dedication to her friend and to the important work they continue to do. 

In an ironic twist, both Terresa and Kelly found themselves job hunting this summer as budget cuts claimed both of their jobs. But neither have dwelled on the setback because they know that although the paychecks may have gone away, the issue has not. And neither of these two are going to give up or be deterred in the pursuit of the goal to take the option of suicide off of everyone’s table.

The satisfaction of completing the task is one most of us will only experience through their pictures and posts and stories of the road told through the numerous forms of media.  But even more so now than before, we all see the importance of why two women from Park County decided to walk across Wyoming.

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