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Michael's Run shines the light on mental illness

Leominster Champion - 10/28/2017

For the seventh straight year, Michael's Run went off without a hitch, and brought very important information on the issue of mental health to the spotlight.

The event is hosted by Michael's mother, Angela Wallace, his sister Kim Wallace Pehi, and his brother Gary Wallace. It is their way to not only honor Michael, but to also support the SHINE Initiative, which deals with many facets of mental health issues within our community. The entire Amico family is also involved with support.

Michael was born and raised in Leominster, and in his senior year of high school he was diagnosed with clinical depression. He sought treatment, but felt no one really understood what he was feeling and going through. During his high school years, he played football, was editor of the school newspaper, and was class president. He was very popular and well liked by everyone. Upon graduation, he went on to attend Harvard University, graduating in 1995 cum laude, and was employed in the city of Cambridge. His symptoms seemed to get worse during the long cold winters, so he moved to sunny California, getting a job at Sun Microsystems.

Michael would speak with his family members on a daily basis, and once commented that he would like to just walk away from it all and begin a new life. That triggered his family to try to get him back home, but on Feb. 4, 2003, Michael vanished without a trace. He left a good job, a wife, and his entire life behind him. There has been no contact with him since that day.

Kim spearheads the events to raise money and awareness for not only her brother, but also anyone who suffers with depression and other other illnesses.

"We spend our energy, our grieving, and efforts to find him, and to keep his face out there," she said.

To date, Michael's Run, along with Party for a Purpose, has donated $30,000, which has all stayed locally to fund programs and help families going through the same issues the Wallace family has.

"We speak at the high schools, developed support systems for kids in need of help, and we call that part of it Healthier Minds, which we hold a social the first of every month," she said. "We have a spaghetti supper, and talk and reach out to help with getting resources. This event is open to the public. Anyone is welcome to come and sit and talk."

Michael's cousin Gina Marchand Bernard grew up two houses away from Michael's family, and spent countless hours with Michael in their youth.

"Michael got treatment in his senior year of high school, and we would talk all the time," she said. "He told me he was very uncomfortable with what was happening, and asked me not to tell anyone about what he had. He also used to say he wished there was a place he could go to get help. Then this whole SHINE Initiative got started; it was important to us to get information and help out to people. We have support groups to make sure people know there is help out there and they are not alone."

Gina said one very important step in getting help to people is to "reduce the labels that are put on them. Clinical depression is not about being sad, or sadness. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain. We work to empower people who suffer, and to stop the stigma that is associated with mental illness."

Mayor Dean Mazzarella attended the walk/run, but did not partake because of a knee injury.

"This is all amazing," he said. "This family is so dedicated. Mental health is an issue near and dear to just about everyone. Having all the funds raised go right back into our community is great. The SHINE program goes to our schools to talk to the students, and they bring mental heath awareness out in the open."

Kim said that over the years, the family has heard many theories about what happened to Michael, and where he could be. A few years back, they had a glimmer of hope when a homeless man in California matched Michael's description, but after testing, it was determined not to be him.

"We grieve," she said. "We wonder what ever happened to him. If he is alive, we hope he is happy, wherever he may be."

 
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