The great outdoors – exploring trails, hiking a mountain, biking with friends, or taking a leisurely stroll through a nature preserve – there’s just something about being one with nature that’s invigorating and calming all at the same time. Solo or with others, time navigating terrain or reaching new heights is incredibly gratifying. For others, however, it’s something more.
Colleen Verreault of Poland started actively adventuring in 2020. Since then, she’s been increasing her mileage count, as well as varying her activities, though her reasons go beyond the simple challenge of it all. In August of 2015, David and Colleen Verreault lost their son – and Emily Verreault lost her brother – Adam, to suicide. The idea of that kind of loss is something most parents cannot fathom – it’s a heavy and crushing pain and recovering from it can seem unimaginable.
“You don’t expect to lose your child – for them to go before you,” Colleen shared. “I think one of the hardest things about losing a child – for me – is worrying about everyone forgetting about him.”
Colleen explained how her own desperate need to know why – and wanting to know how to deal with the grief – led her to researching and reaching out to others who have experience with processing emotions after loss. That research and discussion gave her the understanding that everyone who knew Adam was grieving for him in their own way. What began as Colleen’s way of processing grief has ultimately become a way for her to stay connected to her son and share his adventurousness, as well as her husband and daughter.
“I’m not the only one who lost him, there are lots of people in his life who lost him, too,” Colleen admitted.
Adventure can be a path to healing
Adam was always energetic and active. Colleen describes her son as athletic, with a love of being outdoors. He participated in numerous sports throughout school, but soccer was his passion, and he continued playing past graduation, into his time at the University of Southern Maine. These are things that she shares with people about Adam, whether they had known him or not.
“He was a very active guy,” Colleen said of her son. “He was just very athletic and constantly had to keep moving, and that’s what keeps me moving.”
Colleen and Adam shared a number of adventures, including a hike at Baxter State Park, and the two had plans to skydive together. After putting it off for two years for one reason or another, it never happened. On the first anniversary of Adam’s passing, she and Adam’s father, David, went skydiving.
“I’m glad we did it,” Colleen said. “We both agree we don’t need to do it again.”
That adventure sparked a desire to do more things outdoors, as she’d found a way to feel connected to her son. In July of 2020, Adam would have been 25 years old. Colleen wanted to do something to signify the date since they were unable to celebrate the day with a party due to the pandemic.
“I asked Joanne Audet, a friend of mine to do a 25-mile bike ride with me on his birthday,” Colleen explained. “It was so rewarding for me.”
Audet’s husband, Steve, came up with the route and joined them, as did another friend, Mary Jane Dillingham. That ride made Colleen admit that she wasn’t in the physical shape she would like to have been, and that made her realize that she wasn’t as active as she wanted to be. With the pandemic limiting gathering options, Colleen wanted to once again do a special recreational activity to celebrate Adam’s 26th birthday.
On May 17, 2021 she created the Facebook group, Miles for Adam, asking for others to join her in reaching a goal of hiking 26 miles by July 16. With 8 weeks to achieve that goal, she hiked 50 miles by Adam’s birthday, nearly doubling her goal, though she got those last 2 miles in the following day.
“That felt great, so I just kept going,” admitted Colleen. “I kept the Facebook page going and at the end of 2021 I had completed 150 miles.”
Accompanying Colleen as a way to support her friend, Mary Jane said she admires the way Colleen has stayed connected to Adam, but that she’s also able to remain so grounded after all she’s been through. The two have logged many adventure miles together over the past three years, and the decision to participate in Miles for Adam, for Mary Jane, was about living with intention and being positive in how others deal with tragedy. The hikes aren’t sad, according to Mary Jane, they’re full of laughter and conversations about a whole host of things beyond pain and grief.
“I’m very proud of her, and I just enjoy her friendship,” Mary Jane explained. “I also respect what she’s doing, and she’s doing it so honorably.”
Hiking, biking, and so much more
New adventures lead to new accomplishments. Colleen has sought new experiences along her journey to accumulate those miles. If there’s a challenge, she’s up for it.
“In 2021, I hiked Mount Katahdin with Cherri Crockett – which was a first for me and I loved it,” Colleen explained. “That’s what really gave me the itch to do more of the higher mountains and the more challenging climbs.”
As 2022 arrived, Colleen says she decided to keep going with a new goal of 365 adventure miles. In addition, she also decided to hike four 4,000-foot mountains in New England. She surpassed that goal, hiking six 4,000-foot peaks. When she nearly fell short of reaching her mileage goal, she says a hiking buddy encouraged her to get out and get the remaining seven miles done, so she rode her bike to complete them.
Recently, she hiked with a former classmate of Adam’s, Ashley Cleaves, her fiancé, Justin Cottle, and their dog, Penny. Colleen says she enjoyed the day and recognized that she may never have done it if not for creating the Miles for Adam group.
“I think of Adam, and I think of adventure,” Colleen expressed. “I feel like if he were here, he would be on these adventures with me.”
Emily has joined her mom for hikes on Portland trails, and walked Old Orchard Beach with her dog, Zoey. Colleen has hiked Morse Mountain and Peaks Island with her sister, Dee Kelley, Old Speck with her nephew Joe Fournier and Toby McAllister, and a sunrise trek up Streaked Mountain with Wendy Villani, which Colleen described as “incredible.”
“I want to express how much I love and appreciate the time spent with all my adventure friends and family,” Colleen said.
In addition to her own adventures, she participates in 46Climbs, founded by Kolby and Catherine Ziemendorf. The objective is to have people hike a mountain or trail during Suicide Prevention Week (this year during September 1-10) and raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Awareness. She, Mary Jane and other friends have participated in 46Climbs wearing the event’s t-shirts, leading people to ask questions and have conversations which promote suicide awareness.
Looking back, Colleen said she just didn’t know the signs of potential self-harm. While she knows there are never guarantees, she wonders if she’d known then what she knows now whether things might have gone differently. During Covid, so many people struggled with their mental health and were hit hard. There was some small gratification for her in being able to shed light on the struggles and the signs.
“To be aware of mental illness, it’s an important subject – to keep everyone looking out for each other,” said Colleen. “Learn the signs and where to go to get help.”
When Mary Jane hiked for 46Climbs with Colleen in 2022, the two were stopped by numerous people asking about the shirt. Nearly everyone had some connection to losing someone in their life to suicide and it left an impression on her, and all because a t-shirt sparked conversation.
“For me, it was very powerful,” admits Mary Jane. “You’re walking by people on a path that have a story.”
Raising awareness every mile
Last year, Colleen and her cousin designed a patch, knowing many hikers like to collect them. The only thing people have to do to receive one is to either go on an adventure with her or post their own adventures using #milesforadam. Over the course of 2022, 40 patches were given out. Moving forward, Colleen plans to design a different patch for each year. Along with the patch, she may one day add a t-shirt for her Miles for Adam movement.
“I think when people see things it can sometimes spark a conversation,” explained Colleen.
One of the patches Mary Jane received from Colleen is on her backpack where it can be seen by others and she hopes it continues to spark conversation.
“I was really psyched to get the patches,” Mary Jane remarked.
Miles for Adam is a way for people to meet other people who have suffered similar loss and some who are simply empathetic to their experience. It’s also a way of being supportive –providing a listening ear, having a meaningful conversation, or simply walking beside them in silence among nature.
“I think that nature, being immersed in it, and respecting it, is a way people can heal,” Mary Jane shared. “It just has that magic.”
Planning hikes is not typical for Mary Jane, though last year she felt the urge to try a trek up Mt. Washington. The first person she asked to join her was Colleen. From that, the possibility of expanding to bigger mountains and challenges was born.
“We had a lot of fun and that was probably one of the best hikes I’ve been on aside from the Owl at Baxter State Park,” admits Mary Jane. “It was perfect.”
When she started the Facebook group, Colleen’s main intentions were the mental and physical health aspects. Over time, more meaning and possibility have surfaced. The people she’s met, and the accomplishments she’s made with so many of them have encouraged her to keep it going.
“When I’m out there, I just feel like he’s with me all the time, and it also helps me connect with people I might not have met otherwise,” Colleen conveyed.
This year, Colleen plans to hike for 46Climbs again, tackle more of the Presidential mountains, and maybe even an overnight excursion. Her commitment to the group and all those adventure miles is steadfast. Colleen has added another facet to her adventuring, recently becoming certified in Wilderness First Aid (WFA) through a 2-day course at L.L. Bean. While the course was tough, she says it was worth it.
“I feel so much more educated to be able to help myself and others that run into trouble,” Colleen explained.
One thing that resonates with Colleen is the number of people who have reached out with a desire to help her reach the milestones she’s set, but don’t feel they are able to hike mountains or trails. It’s important to her that everyone who wants to participate in Miles for Adam feels empowered to do so, in any way they are able. It doesn’t have to be a long hike or strenuous challenge. She’s willing to hike with anyone who wants to be part of adventure miles locally at a park or track, because miles are miles whether hiked, biked, or swam, and outdoor adventures can be had anywhere.
“I really want to encourage people to keep moving, because it’s mentally and physically good for you,” Colleen explained.
Eight years have passed since the Verreault family lost Adam. Colleen said finding purpose has been a challenge, but she wants to make something lasting out of this group and what’s been started. Aside from the initial intention for the group, Colleen shared that her vision for Miles for Adam is for it to evolve into a fundraiser down the road. She’d also like to create a scholarship for high school seniors planning to pursue degrees in the mental health field like psychology and social work.
“It’s not that I want Miles for Adam to be some big thing, I just want it to be beneficial,” stated Colleen. “I’d like to help any way I can.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Maine Crisis Line 1-888-568-1112.