This year’s Lilly’s Lope for Hope is set for Saturday, Oct. 8, at Philomath City Park. (Photo courtesy of Lilly’s Lope for Hope)

Nine years ago, 14-year-old Lilly Stagner took her own life.

A freshman at Philomath High School, the Blodgett teen had a passion for horses and a special talent as a young artist. The family called her smile contagious and described her as possessing a warm, caring nature that touched the lives of those around her.

Lilly Stagner: 1999-2013. (Photo courtesy of Lilly’s Lope for Hope)

The unthinkable happened on Oct. 23, 2013. The pain, the trauma of the situation will remain for a lifetime. Lilly’s aunt, Paula May, who has worked for 25 years as a registered nurse, started doing research on “why.”

Although all situations involving suicide are different, May knew that not talking about it or pretending that it didn’t happen was not something the family wanted to do. By the following year, Lilly’s Lope for Hope had launched to bring awareness to youth suicide.

“It’s very healing, you know, it just definitely felt like the right thing to do for the last nine years,” May said earlier this week.

This year’s Lilly’s Lope for Hope is set for Saturday, Oct. 8, at Philomath City Park. A 5-kilometer run is the featured event — folks interested can preregister online — but there will also be an in-person silent auction and various organizations on hand sharing information. For those who prefer to register on the morning of the event, May estimated that tables would be set up by 9:15 a.m. The 5K run is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. (May said a 1K walk was not organized this year).

May wasn’t sure how an event to raise awareness about youth suicide would go over in the community and in the beginning had wondered if 2014 would be its only year.

“The community honestly has wanted it to keep going and I think it’s certainly been a way to connect with our community better and let people know what resources are out there,” May said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’d get messages or calls from not only adults but kids saying, ‘hey, I’m worried about a friend … what am I supposed to do?’” May added. “It’s pretty incredible to be a piece of that puzzle that people are trying to figure out because our mental health system is so broken that at least it can be a part of a solution … it’s definitely allowed me to help others in a way that I never would have dreamed of before.”

But after nine years organizing the event, May hit a point in life where she’s being pulled in a lot of different directions.

“I had really been battling with motivation to get started early enough, to get the things done that I needed to get done and I just felt like I really needed to just step away from it,” May said.

It’s also a special and busy time in the lives of May’s children with a son and daughter currently in high school, including one who will be graduating this coming spring.

May published a post on Facebook to announce that the 2022 Lilly’s Lope for Hope would be the final one. And a nearby organization reached out.

“We follow the Lilly’s Lope page on Facebook and had seen that Paula said she was no longer going to run it after this year and it kind of just hit home with us because their mission and our values and our mission kind of intertwine quite a bit based on the services and programs that we provide here at Old Mill,” said Daniel Surfass, development manager at Old Mill Center for Children and Families. “So that was the driving force behind wanting to see this continue to be an event that we shine a light on.”

Lilly’s Lope for Hope, organized following the 2013 suicide of Lilly Stagner, is in its ninth year. (Photo courtesy of Lilly’s Lope for Hope)

May didn’t have exact figures in front of her, but she estimated that Lilly’s Lope for Hope raises between $9,000 and $13,000 annually. Those figures include foundational support, event sponsors, Lilly’s Lope entries, the silent auction and so on.

Surfass said there are details to iron out with Old Mill Center taking a close look at this year’s event to make a final determination on how to move forward.

“I think that we’re all on the same page of wanting it to continue with us,” he said. “I think we just wanted to talk out a few more logistics after the fact because we’ve been assisting a little bit with preparation and everything this year just to give us a good idea on certain things that they hold true to their mission of being able to fund certain suicide awareness classes.”

May said Old Mill Center reached out to her and her sister, Nikki Stagner, probably within two days of the Facebook post. A few weeks later after giving the possibility serious thought, a meeting was arranged

Surfass said there are quite a few connections between his organization and Philomath — a co-founder was originally from Philomath and Old Mill Center assisted the family after the 2013 suicide. So the Facebook post immediately caught his attention.

“That’s what kinda sparked us to reach out to Paula and see if the family would be acceptable of our organization moving forward with it and they seemed happy when we met,” Surfass said.

Surfass said Old Mill Center knows how much the event has meant to the Philomath community.

“To us as a whole, it’s hard for us to sit there and just watch it end after nine years,” he said, “so our main goal is that we want to continue to spread awareness, continue to use the name if they were going to accept that … it’s just something that we see as vital to our community and a lot of people feel really strongly about it. It’s as important to us as it is important to them so that’s why the partnership came to be.”

Old Mill Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit organization established in 1977 and based in west Corvallis, provides services to children and families in Benton and Linn counties, including early education and physical and mental health services.

May said she is considering expanding her focus into other areas of suicide prevention.

“I think by letting this part go, I’m going to try to do some other things like more in school education for QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) teaching and maybe trying to figure out ways to get communities involved — to help with their own community, not just Benton County, but other communities,” she said. “I never thought that I could do both.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.