OXFORD — Jackson Gray was attending Miami University when he got the call from his mother that his best friend, James Halley, committed suicide. That tragedy spurred him, a year later, to create Race the River 2017.
Halley was adopted from Russia when he was a toddler, but it was not until 7th grade that he met Gray. They were both football players, but on different teams. They started a playful friendship centered on “trash-talking” each other. When they graduated to 8th grade, the boys were suddenly playing for the same team.
Their friendship remained strong throughout high school, where they added three or four other classmates to their group. Gray said of Halley, “He basically lived at my house.”
Gray added, “Everything changed when we left for school. He was not an emotional person at all. He was a very straightforward sort of guy. We never saw anything coming. When my mom called me to tell me he had committed suicide, I was like, ‘you’re lying, not James.’”
It was not a lie.
Gray always knew he wanted to do something in honor of his friend and in support of suicide prevention; he simply did not know what it could be.
The idea came eight months ago when Gray was working late night at local restaurant Bagel & Deli. Gray’s boss mentioned the Ohio River and Gray was interested enough to begin his research. He saw he would be the youngest person to canoe the river.
He knew he would canoe the entirety of the river, but was unsure for what reason.
Then he remembered Halley and “the two ideas just sort of cumulated together. It all made sense.”
He plans to canoe all 981 miles of the Ohio River with his friend Tyler Brenzina, in support and awareness of suicide prevention. He coined the effort “Race the River 2017.” The event is called “race” not because Gray and Brenzina intend to race each other, but rather because they plan to finish the canoe trip in 40 days.
It is a race against the river.
Gray was tempted to put the “race” together last year, but he “wanted to make it great.” He decided to push it back a year and do all the planning necessary to have a great run.
Race the River 2017 is not a solo endeavor. “I brought in some people on my team,” Gray said, “Sabrina Jewell, who is my advisor. She helps me tame my imagination. It’s a lot of work we’re putting all together, more than we can handle as two people, so we brought in more people.”
They have six interns from Farmers School of Business.
Gray also hopes to collaborate with Miami Student Organization Active Minds, which has the purpose of destigmatizing mental illness. Not only does he support Active Minds, but also he wants a “foot in the door” with student organizations. It is easier to plan on campus activities, if you have an affiliation with the University.
Race the River 2017 is currently focused on Revenue Generating Events (RGEs.) They have many funds to raise – as they hope to raise money for suicide prevention and for their trip (gear especially). These are two separate funds.
While admitting that it is hard to make it clear that he is doing two different sorts of fund raising, Gray said he has a process for deciding what funds go to what stash.
He wants to raise $7,000 for suicide prevention and $3,000 for the gear. Any collaborations outside of the university go toward their gear, University affiliation funds go to suicide prevention, and the public can choose what fund their donations goes into.
Gray has an account through American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and this is his means for donating for suicide prevention. He liked that the funds will go throughout the nation, instead of local only.
Gray has found several community collaborations to help with his gear fund. They have a bagel at Bagel and Deli – $1 from each sale goes toward their gear. They also have a partnership in the works with Seaview Outfitters, which will allow them to purchase gear for face value.
Gray admitted, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this, so a lot of it is trial and error. We’re trying very hard to keep [the funds] separate, but they’re the same entity.”
At this moment, the Race the River 2017 team mostly needs financial support. They are looking for collaborations from businesses, or you can directly donate to their cause. The main way they keep in touch with their following is through their Facebook page.
May 29, 2017 is the tentative launch date for the project.