Local Charity Event Series Raises Funds and Awareness for Suicide Prevention
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Described by his mother Shannon Shirven as “the defender of the underdog,” Gunnar Shirven was a sweet, charismatic guy who couldn’t stand to see anyone picked on or bullied.
“I think he felt that on a personal level, so he reacted by defending them,” Shirven says. “He was smart, funny and charming.”
After graduating from high school in 2016, he joined the Marines.
“We were really proud of that decision,” Shirven says, speaking of her and her husband Rick, a veteran Indianapolis firefighter. Gunnar served until 2018.
Sadly, at age 22 Gunnar took his life, leaving Shannon and Rick stunned and heartbroken. As they wrestled with the tsunami of emotions that followed, they held tight to the good memories – like the fact that he was the class clown who loved to make people laugh. He could quote many comedies from start to finish, and perfected different dialects so that he could deliver movie lines using various accents and voices. Besides being a brilliant entertainer, he was a phenomenal friend to many.
“It didn’t matter your status, if you had money or any of that,” Shirven says. “If Gunnar was your friend, he was your friend through thick and thin.”
As Shannon and Rick processed their grief, they turned to each other, God and their community to heal. The family decided early on that they would honor Gunnar’s legacy by choosing not to focus on his death, but rather on the laughter and joy he brought to others. Not long after his passing, the Avon American Legion reached out to Shirven to let her know that they were doing a motorcycle fundraiser for veteran suicide. They asked if they could use Gunnar’s story to help spread awareness and she agreed.
“You have to positively direct your pain,” she says. “You can lie in bed and be depressed and angry, and look for people to blame, but nothing good comes from that. We decided that every day we were going to choose joy because that’s what Gunnar would want, not only for his own life, but for ours.”
The following year the Danville American Legion hosted a fundraiser. Shirven decided to make it an annual event, adding a jeep ride to the mix since Gunnar loved jeeps.
“I’m a party planner by birth,” she says with a chuckle. “That’s my special gift.”
That gift has served her well, as she created the Gunshow Charity, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit event. Through trial and error, Shirven has learned what works and doesn’t work with fundraising. This year she and her family have decided to spread out their fundraisers across the summer, including one in July, one in August and three in September. Opting for several small events as opposed to one giant annual event seemed to make more sense (see sidebar for this year’s scheduled fundraisers).
“Gunnar loved so many things so we wanted to make a cycle of giving to honor our child, create fun activities and ultimately serve our community,” says Shirven, who has lived in Hendricks County for 23 years. She’s quick to point out that none of it would be possible without the help of her amazing group of friends.
“I have a vision, but I have an army of people behind me who help get it all done,” she says. “Every year I pray, ‘Lord, just let us make $1 more.’”
So far that prayer has been answered. They raised $10,000 the first year, $12,500 the second year, $15,000 the third year and $26,000 last year.
Beneficiaries include the Danville Community Education Foundation, Danville Pee Wee Baseball, and items for Ellis Park.
“It’s such an honor to be able to give to our community while talking publicly about suicide and the residual effects it has on family and friends,” Shirven says. “It’s always shocking how many people come up to us during these events to share their stories. There’s a great need to talk about suicide, the stigma behind it and, of course, prevention.”
Part of this year’s funds will go toward Ellis Park again. The family wanted to do something that could not only memorialize Gunnar’s life, but also help anyone who is suffering loss. One of Rick’s fellow Indianapolis firefighters, Clyde Pennington, makes large-scale art. He’s creating a 20’x12’ tree out of stainless steel and copper that will be a permanent memorial art fixture at the park.
“People can buy a laser-cut leaf, and over the years it will become this massive wind-chime tree,” Shirven says. “The tree will be lit up from within for nighttime viewing, and will be surrounded by benches so loved ones can sit and reminisce.”
They’re also donating some of this year’s funds to the Lexi Fund in honor of Lexi Riggles, a recent Danville graduate who passed away last year. The Lexi Fund is paying for new cat condo structures at Misty Eyes Animal Center.
“The reason we do this fundraising is to bring joy to others,” Shirven says. “Plus, the way I see it, anywhere you go, you’re going to pay money for a concert, food or whatever. This way, 100% of the money goes back into our community. That’s a win-win-win from every angle.”
Every year since Gunnar passed away, Shirven has felt her son’s presence on his birthday, often in her dreams. This year, however, she woke up despondent because she didn’t dream of Gunnar. But then she checked her phone messages and found that a friend of a friend had just lost her son to suicide, and she didn’t know who to talk to.
“I thought, ‘That’s Gunnar, trying to help the underdog,’” says Shirven, who, after receiving that message, reached out to the mother of Sam Arnone, the young man who took his life. She shared her story and invited the mom to be a part of the Gunshow Charity. Shirven understands now, more than ever, her son’s propensity to help others, as she has found that the best way to navigate the grief process is by helping someone else heal.
In memory of Gunnar Shirven and Sam Arnone, consider supporting the following local events:
Benefit Concert – September 24 at 6:30 p.m., at the Royal Theater in Danville, featuring Straight Davis and Josh Chalfant.
Poolside Paint & Sip – August 6 at 4 p.m. with Danville’s Kerry Trout. Located at 601 West Mill Street in Danville. Enjoy beer and wine, music, and art.
Jeep Ride – September 10. A 100-mile scenic ride starting at Gary Eakin Park in Danville. Arrive at 9:30 a.m., with a 10:30 a.m. departure.
Golf Cart Parade – September 11 at 1 p.m., at Ellis Park in Danville.
Pickleball – September 18 at 1 p.m., at Ellis Park in Danville.
To purchase tickets to any of these events, become a sponsor, purchase a Gunshow Charity T-shirt or make a donation, visit thegunshowcharity.squarespace.com.