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Ben Long had a knack for making other people feel comfortable.

“So many people told us that he just had this calming influence on others,” said his father, Ed Long, of Culpeper. “His great sense of empathy for others and looking out for the little guy was something that I’m very proud of.”

Sadly, Ben Long, a 2008 graduate of Culpeper County High School, lacked empathy and hope for himself after falling into the grips of heroin addiction that started with pain pills after a workplace injury soon after he graduated from college.

Nearly four years ago, on April 12, the 24-year-old took his own life to stop the pain.

For the fourth year in a row, the community will honor Ben Long’s memory at the Living the Dream Foundation 5K happening 8 a.m. to noon this Saturday in Culpeper’s Yowell Meadow Park. The event is all about educating the community about depression, substance abuse and suicide in this community, said Ed Long, who started the foundation in 2016 with his wife, Gloria. “Living the dream,” is what Ben used to always say when someone asked him how he was doing.

“Ben had a zest for life and his sense of fairness and love for others will stay with me forever,” said Long. “His heroin addiction and total absence of hope for treatment ultimately took him from us.”

Recently, some movement has started toward creating local options and facilities for substance abuse rehabilitation with various community groups coming together to support a facility, he said. But even with the increased spotlight, the area still leads the state in overdose deaths.

“On the mental health field, we have a long way to go,” Long said. “Culpeper is a great place to live and work, but there is a dark side to our community. There are way too many suicides for a community of our size. Affordable and available mental health counseling is much needed here.”

As a parent who lost a child to suicide, he added, what stands out most is how many other parents share the painful experience, including losing children to overdose and accidents.

“The number is staggering. You really don’t know what’s going on in someone’s mind. What kind of pain they are carrying with them,” Long said. “I have met parents who have lost not one but two or more children. I really don’t know how the get up in the morning and function normally. These people give me hope that we can find a way to continue on.”

Groups such as Living the Dream are trying to make a little difference, he said, noting more people than ever are talking about drug abuse and suicide. Continuing to shed that light on such heavy subjects will ultimately reduce the deaths, Long said.

“I sincerely hope that we can give people struggling with addiction and depression that hope for help that my son could not find,” he said.

Joining the Living the Dream 5K event this year will be The Joshua York Legacy Foundation dedicated to suicide prevention and awareness through outreach. Bill York of Maryland helped form the foundation last year, less than a month after his 20-year-old son, Joshua, a rape survivor, committed suicide on July 28, 2018, following many years of struggle with body image and self-worth issues.

“One of our outreach programs is called ‘Suicide Prevention Rocks,’ found on Facebook as a group with the same name,” York wrote in a Facebook message. The program is simple: paint positive messages on rocks and place them around to spread hope.

“I will be bringing the program to the 5K to support your event and community,” York said. “Looking forward to strengthening lives with love in Culpeper!”

Saturday’s event, in addition to the 5K, will feature a memorial walk, silent auction, food, T-shirts, face painting, games for the kids, water and music. New this year is a ‘Virtual 5K’ option for those who cannot physically make it to the park, but still want to help make a difference. Virtual participants can run or walk anywhere and share a short video on the Living the Dream Facebook page with all tax-deductible donations supporting awareness and education programs in the Culpeper community.

Register in advance for the 5K on EventBrite at Living the Dream 5K Run and Memorial Walk.

Jack Howell of Culpeper County paints a rock at the Joshua York Legacy Foundation booth at last Saturday’s Living the Dream Foundation 5K in Yowell Meadow Park. Suicide awareness and prevention organizations, including the York Foundation, came to the park to participate in the annual event.Thanks to VINCENT VALA FOR STAR-EXPONENT for the image and ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION for the original article, which can be seen at Living the Dream 5K shines light in shadows of suicide, drug abuse