EATON — Students from several local high schools held the second annual HOPE Fair at the Preble County Fairgrounds Friday, May 7. The event is intended to spread awareness about suicide prevention and other mental health issues.
Hold On, Persuade, and Empower (HOPE) Squad is a peer-to-peer mentoring program with members in each of the five high schools in Preble County, as well as across the country, according to Michelle Gebhart, who serves as an advisor to local chapters of the program. Gebhart owns and works as a therapist at Eaton-based Gebhart Counseling Solutions, LLC.
Squad members are nominated by their peers and serve as leaders in their schools, according to Gebhart, working to spread hope and acting as a source of support for students experiencing suicidal thoughts and other mental health struggles.
“They’re people the kids would go to if they’re struggling with something,” Gebhart said.
Squad members are trained in how to counsel and respond to someone who is suicidal, according to Gebhart, and sign a code of conduct promising to hold themselves to a high behavioral standard.
“It’s a huge honor, honestly, so they have to get good grades and behave responsibly at school and on social media,” Gebhart said. “You have to be a positive role model. It kind of goes against the purpose of HOPE Squad if you’re getting in trouble or getting suspended.”
Members are also trained to recognize when a fellow student’s struggles should be kept in confidence and when advisors should be consulted.
“When do you go to the advisors, and when can it be kept between the two of you?” Gebhart said. “They learn to give support, guidance, or to get us involved if it’s a significant situation.”
The HOPE Squad is an effort to create a positive culture in the schools, according to Gebhart.
“If kids feel that things can get better, there’s less of a chance that they’ll act on suicidal thoughts,” Gebhart said.
The HOPE Fair also helps raise funds for HOPE Squad efforts, according to Gebhart, as well as increasing the positive feeling in the community.
“These amazing kids you see here have saved students’ lives,” Gebhart announced near the beginning of Friday’s event, which included activities such as face painting, a bounce house, an inflatable slide, a dunk tank, and games including cornhole and Connect Four.
Several HOPE Squad members also spoke briefly.
“It’s helped me make friendships with people, especially at other schools,” Twin Valley South sophomore Katie Wright said.
Preble Shawnee senior Michelle Bulach said that her two years with the HOPE Squad have given her the desire to become a mental health professional herself.
“It’s opened my eyes a lot about mental health and suicide awareness,” Bulach said.
Another Preble Shawnee senior, meanwhile, spoke about how HOPE Squad had helped her through her own difficult time.
“I’m really happy that HOPE Squad had the resources to help with my situation,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be here for graduation, but in three weeks I’m going to walk across the stage and get my diploma, and that’s pretty cool.”
Reach Anthony Baker at 937-683-4057 or on Facebook @mproperenglish