- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Off an otherwise deserted rural road south of Salem, lifted trucks, sports cars and SUVs rumbled to rest in a pull-out overlooking the Ankeny Wildlife Refuge. The Wednesday evening air was rapidly cooling, and the sky was a gradient indigo. Stars began to twinkle, and a couple blazed through darkness.

By the time the sun had set, about 25 people gathered, some wearing shirts that memorialized John “Speed” Sommer, a 24-year-old man who loved fast cars and was loved by his family and fellow car enthusiasts near and far.

At 8 p.m. the group lit red candles - reminiscent of Sommer’s red Camaro - in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day.

Sommer’s mother, Shawn Lott, gestured her hand in a sweeping motion toward the crowd.

“This, right here, is the reason I’m still standing here,” she said.

Sommer died on Oct. 27, 2011, after overdosing on sleeping pills. The morning Lott got the phone call, she was on her way to see her eldest son, whom she had heard was struggling with a breakup.

Lott had taken the day off work to see how she could help. She kept driving, hoping that the news her other son just told her wasn’t real.

“It’s one of those things you think won’t ever happen in your life,” Lott, 48, of Keizer, said.

Before she lost her son, Lott didn’t think much about suicide. Today, when she’s not working as a technician in a Woodburn eye clinic, she spends her time advocating for suicide prevention, reaching out to those who recently lost loved ones to suicide and raising money for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Tom Parker, spokesman for Portland nonprofit Lines for Life, said each suicide is unique, but a couple factors could put youths at risk.

For one, the onset of certain mental disorders tend to occur in the late teens and early 20s, he said. Another issue is that this is also the stage in people’s lives when they might start drinking or using other substances. And that may cause behavioral changes in groups who have undiagnosed mental illnesses.

Ultimately, though, hopelessness and not being able to see a way out is the most dangerous state of mind, Parker said.

“They can’t see their way forward from the situation they’re in,” he said.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youths age 10-24, after automobile accidents, he said.

Sommer’s friends snickered when asked about the significance of the spot they gather every year to remember the guy they called Speed. Let’s just say they enjoyed their love of speedy vehicles on that road.

Garrett Cataldo, one of Sommer’s close friends, said their group was into “fast cars, lifted trucks, anything that was fast and stupid to use.”

“You have your family,” he said. “And then you have the family of cars.”

Sommer had a small business called Speed Built, which he used to customize people’s cars.

Now, Lott has a team by the same name that raises money for the Oct. 4 Out of the Darkness Walk in Portland. The team is already the top fundraiser, with $1,385, according to the event website, but the goal is to raise $5,000.

Among the group honoring Sommer on Wednesday night were loved ones of two other suicide victims, Jeremy Alexander and Matthew Craeton. Their mothers, whom Lott connected with through mutual friends, said they’ve appreciated her support.

“You know you’re not the only one and you’re not alone,” Matthew’s mother, Jeri Craeton, said.

Matthew, who died late last year, would have been a McKay High School senior today.

Jeremy’s mother, Kim Alexander, said Lott helped her first publicly acknowledge her son’s suicide by speaking with her and inviting her to the candle-lighting. Jeremy Alexander died in March of 2013.

“We as a family need to get the word out and let people know it’s real,” she said. “Don’t turn your back.”

On the surface, Lott said, Sommer had a good life, which she related to the circumstances of comedian and actor Robin Williams’ death.

“It’s not always the introverts who are locked away in a dark room,” she said. “I learned that more with Robin Williams. That’s how my son was. Of all three of my kids he was the most outgoing.

“He had a beautiful car, a job, wonderful friends, was great looking and all the girls liked him. It doesn’t mean they have everything they need inside.”

___

Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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