SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The Helpline Center has meant the world to Abbey Bruner, whose recent experiences are exactly why 12 runners recently crossed the state on foot for The 437 Project.
“I said, ‘How am I going to live through this? How am I going to live?'” Bruner said. “It absolutely crushes your life. And I didn’t know if I could keep going.”
21-year-old Blake Bruner of Sioux Falls lost his life to suicide last November. The tragedy had his mother Abbey searching for help.
“I knew to survive I was going to have to have some help,” she said.
Bruner reached out to the Helpline Center, a Sioux Falls-based nonprofit, and soon received a booklet which helped her realize she was far from alone in her heartache and that grief can take on a variety of forms.
“I knew I wanted to be on a healthy grieving path, and I didn’t want to start drinking alcohol, doing drugs or take my own life,” Bruner said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to live after Blake died.”
She also participated in a class through the Helpline Center that focused on surviving in the wake of losing someone to suicide.
“A lot of people don’t say anything because of their fear, misunderstanding about suicide,” Bruner said. “So rather than say anything, they just kind of backed away so it’s very isolating, and this group was wonderful because we could tell funny stories and we laughed.”
That class introduced her to The 437 Project, and she and her husband John honored their late son by contributing to the effort as part of the runners’ support team. John drove a support vehicle and Abbey rode next to him.
“It was a blessing to spend that precious time with all of them,” Bruner said.
Along the way, Blake wasn’t only here symbolically or spiritually, he was literally here, too; mom carried her son’s ashes in a backpack on the journey.
“Each one of the runners came up to us and said, ‘Tell me about Blake,’ and it felt so good to show videos of him, but they all really wanted to know about him so that was very special,” Bruner said.
Erica Knips, John Meyer and Paul TenHaken were all part of the running team.
“I felt like in the past I’ve been more of a not a very active participant in the mental health conversation,” Knips said. “And seeing people around me struggle, I wanted to know about resources that I could provide to help them.”
“It’s been incredible,” Meyer said. “I knew it was going to be exciting, I knew it would be hard, but it’s been even more than I anticipated.”
“It’s humbling, it’s overwhelming, it’s encouraging, but it also makes me realize there’s a lot of work to do,” TenHaken said. “This event is just a one three-day deal, but we can’t lose the spotlight after this is done.”
The 437 Project this year raised just over a quarter million dollars for the Helpline Center.
“The booklet, the class, talking with others that have had loved ones die by suicide, showed me that I can survive this and I can make it into a beautiful tribute to my son,” Bruner said.
Dan Santella: Do you think the Helpline Center maybe saved your life?
“Absolutely,” Bruner said. “Absolutely.”
Runner Lisa Larson of Mitchell survived her own suicide attempt years ago. In 2023, she was a beacon for others.
“I did message several people on different legs … the first leg was for a specific family that lost somebody very close to them from suicide, the second leg was for another family,” Larson said.
While editing a 437 Project report last month at a restaurant next to the Corn Palace, a stranger placed a note written on the back of a receipt next to KELOLAND’s Dan Santella’s laptop. The note shared that she and her boyfriend had also lost someone to suicide.
“There’s just a lot of people following the cause and are anxious to help in any way they can,” TenHaken said.
“Whether it be the donations or the tweets or, people are just so supportive, and that’s going to carry us through all the way to Sioux Falls,” Meyer said.
Bruner says The 437 Project has also spread the word about 988 for anyone experiencing a mental health challenge.
“You can call 988 and they can be a listening ear, they can direct you to any resources that are available,” Bruner said.
988 isn’t just a number someone can call; you can text that number as well. Running across the state isn’t easy; verbalizing the word “suicide” with someone you love might not be either. But both can make a huge difference.
“It’s important to ask directly to people, ‘Are you thinking about suicide,'” Bruner said.
Blake had a big heart, and she knows what he would want her to do.
“He would want me to power on and advocate for 988, the Helpline Center, The 437 Project,” Bruner said.