Hope Fair sees largest turnout ever


EATON — Preble County’s Hope Squads, a program which trains high school and middle school students to support their peers with mental health issues, has seen significant growth and impact in the schools. To continue to raise awareness, the students held their 5th annual Hope Fair at the Preble County Fairgrounds on Friday evening, May 3 — and saw perhaps their biggest turnout ever.

According to Hope Squad coordinator, therapist Michelle Gebhart, the program has raised over $100,000 and increased awareness about mental health since its creation. Event organizers believe it’s been their most successful year with growing participation and fundraising.

“I think this event has probably been our best by far. I feel like the crowd is bigger,” Gebhart said Friday. “The kids put more into it. They brought in some new activities. They brought Miami University here doing a little (miniature golf) thing to help us raise funds and do some community service on their own. They added the baked goods silent auction. Those were all baked goods donated by area, bakers and companies.

“They did definitely spend a lot more time getting the word out,” Gebhart added. “They did a lot of fundraising prior to this actual event. So, we’ve gotten a decent amount of monetary donations as well that will go back into it. But I would say just predicting, by far this is probably their biggest fundraiser of all five years”

Hope Squads continue to have a positive impact on reducing stigma within schools, according to Gebhart, and the squads themselves have grown as well.

“We started the first year with five high school Hope Squads, and about 15 kids in each squad,” she said. “We had about 75 kids to start. We’ve almost doubled the number of kids between the high school squads growing and we’ve got a couple squads that have about 20 students in them. We’ve added three middle school hope squads within recent years.”

The group also has plans of trying out an elementary Hope Squad program at Preble Shawnee next year.

“You know, the high school squads are dealing with some more significant issues around suicide prevention with their peers. The elementary would be more that kindness, and friendship,” Gebhart said. “Middle School squad is sort of a mix of both. And in talking to some of our middle school squad members one individual shared she feels like this has made her a better person. It’s kind of made her more aware of how words can impact others. So she’s more aware of her own words, which I think is great, at the middle school level.”

“We’re seeing overall a lot less stigma within the school to talk about struggles, mental health struggles, emotional struggles,” Gebhart added. “Kids are getting to those helpful supports quicker because our squads are noticing and they’re intervening, and they’re giving them someone to talk to. They’re getting there quicker to the adults that can help than, I would say. in the past.”

Students who serve on the Hope Squads help provide for inclusivity. “The nomination process, the way that’s done, really ends up with us having kids from kind of all the different social groups,” Gebhart said. “They are not nominated by teachers, they are nominated by their peers, as individuals that their peers feel they can go talk to. So we get a good variety of kids who hit all the different social groups within their schools and that’s what makes it work. Because it’s an all-inclusive group within itself, therefore they can have that all-inclusive within the school.”

The Hope Fair had games and activities for students and families to enjoy all while raising awareness.

Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on X @emowenjr.

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