NEW FRANKLIN  It was a beautiful day at the Portage Lakes State Park as racers, volunteers, animal lovers and people concerned about mental health in Summit County gathered early Oct. 7 for the inaugural KJ’s 5k for Mental Health and Animal Rescue.

Portage Path Behavioral Health hosted the race in the memory of Kyle "KJ" Hamblin and others who have lost their lives to suicide. The race’s primary sponsor was KJ’s employer, Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems. KJ was an electrical engineer who worked on six patents for the company that ultimately generated millions of dollars in revenue.

The money raised through donations and from $25 registration fees of the 325 racers benefits the Portage Path Support Hotline, Summit County’s free suicide prevention service.

"The purpose of today’s event is to increase suicide prevention, increase suicide awareness and support the services of Portage Path Behavioral Health," said Dr Tracy Yaeger, president of Portage Path Behavioral health.

Yaeger’s organization is committed to the Zero Suicide initiative, a national strategy founded on the belief that suicide deaths are preventable under behavioral health care systems. KJ’s 5k is one way the organization is working towards Zero Suicide’s goal.

KJ was a lover of animals and an active participant in animal rescue and racers were encouraged to bring their dogs to run with or just walk around the park. In addition to being a dog-friendly race, adoptable dogs from multiple local animal shelters were brought out to the park to find homes or walk the trails.

The rescues are ones Shari Kennedy, KJ’s mother, works with directly.

Kennedy was touched by the success of the event.

"Oh my gosh, I don’t even know that I have words. I’m just completely overwhelmed," said Kennedy. "It’s a great turnout, we didn’t expect this many people at all. It’s awesome. So we’re just hoping to help people. Everyday you hear about kids committing suicide, and older people, and we want to help."

Racers in attendance thought highly of the young race.

"Oh it’s just great to come out and to run for someone in their memory. Support the cause, too," said Ed Gabbert. "With a lot of people, it’s something we don’t think about. There’s people that we know that we don’t even know that battle with depression, so it’s a great cause and a great event and it’s good to be here. Really well organized for a first event as well."

Portage Path Behavioral Health and Kennedy were inspired by the turnout and hope to raise even more awareness about suicide and mental health next year, as the second KJ’s 5k is already registered and set for Oct. 6, 2018.