Carrying banners, waving American flags and holding on to leashes tugged by dogs, Aiken residents and others from the surrounding area went on a stroll at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center on Sunday afternoon.

One of their goals was to increase awareness of suicide.

They also wanted to raise money to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The local Out of the Darkness Community Walk chairperson, Kennya Loyo, reported that nearly 400 people registered online to participate, and “we’re expecting more,” she added, before the event began.

Many took part in the Out of the Darkness Walk because their friends and family members were victims of suicide.

The team that was walking in honor of the late Taylor Joyner Harrleson, who died in 2013 at the age of 18, had only a few members. But they stood out in the throng because of the bright pink T-shirts that they wore.

Printed on the front of those shirts was the message “You’re Irreplaceable" and a thumbprint.

“Taylor was my best friend,” said Vonne Doran, who is a kindergarten teacher at Douglas Elementary School in Trenton. “He lived in Manning. He was a great person who always laughed, and you never would have thought that he would have gone to this extreme, but he was bullied all of his life.”

Doran was participating for the third time in the Out of the Darkness Walk.

“I do this because I want people to realize that even though they might not feel loved, they are irreplaceable in somebody’s life,” Doran said. “The more we talk about suicide, the more people will reach out to get help instead of turning to that alternative.”

Phillip Lee, who is Cedar Creek Church’s senior pastor, and his wife, Terry, were taking part in the Out of the Darkness Walk for the second year in a row.

One of their children, Phillip Jr., died last September. He was 29.

Earlier this year, Terry founded the Overflow Foundation, which promotes mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

The organization also provides mental health education.

“When we did the walk last year in November, we were in kind of a daze,” Cedar Creek’s senior pastor said. “It is still difficult. I would rather not be here, but it does a feel a little different. We’ve got the foundation now, and there are some other parents that we’ve met that have experienced the more recent loss of a child. We remember how numb and lonely we were, and to be able to hang out with them is a comfort because they also know what it’s like to lose a child.”

In his opinion, the Out of the Darkness Walk encourages those who participate to discuss suicide more openly. Any publicity the event generates also spreads that message to others that talking about suicide isn’t something they should avoid.

“What we’re trying to do by gathering people here is to break down the stigma of suicide,” he said. “So many times people don’t want to talk about it, and it’s the not talking about it that makes it worse.”

​Dede Biles is the Aiken County government, business and horse industry reporter for the Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @DBethBiles.