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Zeeland teen's family continues to fight for mental health 7 years after his death

The Love and Lean Walk-Run raises money for the "Be Nice. Extension" program, which helps promote mental health among young people in Ottawa County.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As Lori Kroll starts to talk about her son Zach, she begins to smile thinking of the memories they shared.

"Zach was a special kid. He always had a quiet spirit about him. He was very compassionate and giving. We've heard stories of him wiping someone's tears in the hallway that was having a bad day or picking up books for someone that that had fallen," she said.

"He was very witty. He always had a one liner just to lighten the mood."

But behind that quiet spirit and quick wit was a young man suffering in silence. Zach, a member of the Zeeland East High School drumline, died by suicide at age 15 in 2015.

"No one really had a clue what he was going through. He just held it all in silently. It was almost like he was trying to make everyone else happy, even though silently he was just dealing with so much on his own," Lori said.

"We didn't have signs or symptoms, like a lot of people typically do. It just, it caught us off guard, and we didn't know until after it was too late."

The Kroll family's grief journey, and their faith, led them to create change in the community.

"It is very healing for our family to see how God is using our story, Zach's story, to bring hope and healing to others by creating ways to raise awareness and share the importance of mental fitness."

Shortly after Zach's death, the Krolls went to an event hosted by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan and developed a relationship with executive director Christy Buck. Together, they've been putting on an event for the last six years called "Love and Lean," a phrase Lori says Zach said to her in a dream after his passing.

The event this year includes a walk and a 5K run. It will be on April 23 at the Zeeland East Soccer Field at 9900 Riley Street. Registration begins at 8:15 a.m. The proceeds will go toward the "Be Nice. Extension" program which puts kids throughout Ottawa County through mental health training.

"Be Nice has proven that it's evidence based to bring about the ability to have these conversations surrounding mental health, to decrease that stigma that goes along with it, to make it easier to have conversations surrounding mental health, mental illness, and then ultimately, suicide," Buck said.

Lori said if Zach could see how his legacy is helping other people who might be going through the same struggles he was going through, he would be "all for it."

"He passed seven years ago, and I can just see the progress that's been made. There's still a long way to go, but it's been good to see that there are just more people out there opening up about it. And I think that's really great, because then others don't feel like they're isolated and alone. I think he would be proud of that."

People who register for the event before April 17 will receive a tee-shirt. You can sign up on the event's website.

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