RICHMOND — Grace and David Gallagher stood together at the orange, inflatable finish line of the SpeakUp 5K race they’ve organized since 2014, anticipating the thousands of runners and walkers who would be coming through over the next couple of hours.
Above them, a larger-than-life photo of their daughter, Cameron, smiled from the poster secured to the top of the inflatable. Next to her photo was the race’s slogan and some of the last words Cameron ever spoke: “Let’s Finish This.”
On March 16, 2014, the Gallaghers stood at another finish line — for the Shamrock Half Marathon in Virginia Beach — waiting for 16-year-old Cameron to complete the 13.1-mile race that she had committed to running to earn a car, a gift her dad had promised her if she could set a challenging goal for herself and achieve it.
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Cameron collapsed into her parents’ arms. Attempts to revive her failed, and the state medical examiner would later say that she had died of heart failure.
But the sadness of that day didn’t dampen the spirits of the people who had gathered to run Saturday morning — not only in Cameron’s memory — but to raise money and awareness for an issue close to Cameron’s heart: teenage depression and anxiety.
At the starting line of the race, which goes along a twisting course through Byrd Park that Cameron designed, Grace thanked the attendees and told them that this race served as a reminder that every life matters.
“I remember there was a time in Cameron’s life where she looked at me and she said, ‘You know, I just don’t think anyone would care if I wasn’t here anymore,’ ” Grace said. “And look at this. I think you do care, right?”
Thousands of participants, many wearing green T-shirts with quotes that Cameron had written to motivate herself as she struggled through depression, cheered.
“If there’s ever a time in your life you feel alone, think of this moment,” Grace said.
As Cameron learned to cope with her depression, which sometimes became so heavy that she would have to spend time in the hospital, the desire to raise awareness of mental illness and help other kids who struggled with the same challenges became one of her life goals.
While she was training for the half marathon, Cameron began crafting the idea of the SpeakUp 5K. She designed the course, complete with fun surprises along the way, and wanted to create an environment that was inclusive and positive. It could serve as a metaphor — people coming together to overcome challenges and lean on each other to find the strength to cross the finish line.
After Cameron’s death, her parents decided to make her dream a reality. Within months, they had created the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, a Richmond-area nonprofit organization led by her mom that hosts workshops and community events that promote mental health, mindfulness and positivity for children. The foundation also funded a mental health resource center that is open to the public and located at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at VCU.
And the foundation has held the SpeakUp 5K, which has brought people of all ages together around the cause in Richmond and other cities across the country, including Tampa, Fla., and San Diego.
Jeff and Kathy Allen said they came out to the race Saturday after their neighbors told them about the great cause it supported.
“I think half our neighborhood is here,” Kathy said.
All 28 players on the women’s lacrosse team at VCU and their three coaches came out to race together for the first time this year.
An alumnus of the team had heard David Gallagher speak about his daughter and was inspired to rally the team around the cause.
“We were passionate about well-being,” said Jen O’Brien, one of the coaches, adding that anxiety and depression are issues that everyone has experienced.
Toni Bass, who works at Richmond Hope Therapy Center, which offers physical therapy for kids, brought her 2-year-old daughter to Byrd Park to cheer on some of her patients, who were doing the race as adaptive participants. She also came to show support for mental health awareness and in memory of a friend who died from suicide last year.
Bass wore a shirt she had designed that read, “No one else can play your part,” on the front and had the suicide prevention hotline on the back.
At the finish line, Grace and David greeted finishers with high-fives and hugs.
“Thank you for coming!” David said, as people took their medals and proceeded to the party that awaited, complete with a Slip ’N Slide, a live band and snacks.
On the back of Grace’s T-shirt, another of Cameron’s quotes reaffirmed her influence on the events of the day.
“Speak up to those who are struggling. It can go a long way.”