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The City Journals

Hillcrest students lend listening ear to peers

Feb 26, 2019 01:57PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High Hope Squad befriends classmates and provides assistance for those who have depression or mental illness. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Gallman)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals.com

In late January, Hillcrest High students were playing bingo.

It wasn’t an ordinary bingo card, but one which featured classmates’ faces.

“The idea was for them to find us, so they know who we are and know that we are there if they need us,” said Hope Squad president Samantha Gallman.

It was one of several activities planned around Hope Week, a week devoted to inspiring classmates to talk through their depression or issues with classmates and counselors.

“We had Hopegrams, which had messages designed to pick up those who are feeling low; we had fun things like searching for rubber ducks for prizes; and an assembly where students and faculty shared through dancing, singing, reading poems about how they got through some really rough times,” Gallman said, adding that the band, Foreign Figures, also performed.

Hope Squad began in Provo in 2005 under the direction of Greg Hudnall, who has championed suicide prevention in Utah schools and communities for more than 20 years. He organized HOPE Squads to be “the eyes and ears” of schools, comprised of students who are trained to watch for at-risk students to provide friendship, identify warning signs, and seek help from adults. 

Currently, there are more than 5,000 Hope Squad members in nearly 300 schools.

Hillcrest began its program four years ago, when senior Aisha Khan was a freshman. She was nominated by her peers to be on it. Currently, she serves as the student creative director for the 30 students participating on the squad.

“Every year we have Hope Squad training that lasts a full day and it mainly consists of what we should be on the lookout for as Hope Squad members,” she said. “We constantly are learning more information about a wide variety of topics not just suicide prevention. We learn about abusive relationships, drug addiction, maintaining personal health, and we have lessons at least every month. In addition, we sometimes have conferences where we get to learn more about different issues. For example, we had the Instead conference this year that was about opioid addiction.”

Khan said through the training, they learn to respond to different situations. 

“We are taught what to say and what to do and it always results in a trusted adult getting involved. We are taught to be there for people, but not be too hard on ourselves in the process as it can be emotionally draining. Our counselors have also provided us with a great amount of resources to use,” she said.

Gallman said she has learned to approach people with different perspectives.

“Being a friend is most important,” she said. “Our goal is to be kind, meet someone new, let people know they are valued and part of our school.”

Both Gallman and Khan say they aren’t actively looking for someone who is depressed or lonely, but both are approached by their peers.

“I’ve had several people come up to me in the halls and together we go to the counselors. It’s easier for them to approach a classmate, and for me, the best thing is getting to know more people at school,” Gallman said.

Khan said she also has been approached by other students.

“People reach out to me if they are concerned about a friend or if they, themselves, need the help,” Khan said. “I have had many people come to me and I have found SafeUT usually the best option. A lot of the times it is after school and so it’s an easily accessible resource that has been incredibly valuable.”

The SafeUT app is a statewide electronic device application that provides real-time crisis intervention for youth with counselors through texting as well as a confidential tip message to school administrators on bullying, threats, violence and depression. 

“We are taught not to be the counselors on Hope Squad, we are just the bridge that connects the counselors to the student body,” Khan said.

It is through the activities, such as Hope Week or the kindness campaign which Hope Squad members planned random acts of kindness for all students in February, that students get to know their peer leaders.

“Our overall goal I think is to help as many people as we can. Putting ourselves out there and making our name known can be incredibly beneficial to someone who is struggling,” Khan said.

They also have participated and supported other efforts such as the Walk Out of Darkness and Hope Squad walks earlier in the school year. There also has been a big push on social media this year to let students know about resources.

“We are part of something that is bigger and want to let our classmates know that there is help through the SafeUT app or talking to an adult who can listen to them,” Gallman said. 

Khan said that although she doesn’t intend to enter this field in the future, being part of Hope Squad has been valuable.

“I know that this knowledge will forever be applicable with my relationships with other people,” she said. “Even if it doesn’t directly coincide with what I decide to do, I know it will have indirect applications.”