Hope Squads taking root in De Pere schools
By Ben Rodgers
DE PERE – It starts with something as simple as a hello, or inviting a lonely student over to join their lunch table, but a group of students in De Pere knows it means more.
Starting this year, the De Pere school district will have three schools with active Hope Squads, a peer-to-peer, evidence-based program with two goals, to prevent suicide and reduce suicidal behaviors.
“We started at the very early age, so we started with our youngest group to be a preventive effort rather than intervening with kids that are contemplating or attempting,” said Melanie Brick, social worker for the De Pere school district. “We started with kids early on so they could build the skills to identify their friends or classmates who are struggling.”
Last year, thanks to a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, a Hope Squad was started at Fox View Intermediate School.
This year, a new DPI grant is bringing the program to the middle and high school.
“We had meetings all last school year and we’ll have meetings all this year, every other Wednesday at 7 a.m.,” Brick said. “Students come an hour before school and we do activities and provide the students with training and some hands-on practice, on how to be a good listener, how to reach out to an adult to get help for someone who is struggling. Because we’re not expecting these kids to be counselors, we’re just teaching them to recognize warning signs and report it to an adult.”
Students on the Hope Squad are selected by other students. Brick said at least 34 students will be on the Hope Squad for De Pere Middle School, which has roughly 650 total kids.
“Those kids are going to be tasked with making people feel welcome at our school or recognizing a kid sitting alone at lunch, or at recess and has no one to play with, and their job is to approach them and make them feel connected to other kids.”
Brick said students are more likely to talk to other students about difficult feelings.
The key for Hope Squad is making students feel connected and instilling a sense of belonging.
“We talked about whole-body listening when somebody is talking to you, and if you realize something is wrong you need to ask the appropriate questions and decide whether or not you need to get adult help,” said Ella Krebsbach, a seventh-grader at De Pere Middle School, who was on the Hope Squad last year at Fox View intermediate School. “You’re listening, truly listening to their answers and letting them talk about their difficulties because you’re someone they’re going to no matter how they are feeling and give them the sense you are open to listening to whatever they have to say.”
The Hope Squad made a video introducing themselves and making people aware of who they are and what they do.
The group also will place sticky notes and every student’s locker with messages like “You are important.”
The main goal is to let the students know there are peers available for them to talk to if they are having difficult feelings. The Hope Squad is also ready to approach students who seem to be having a difficult time.
“A lot of kids, they aren’t comfortable approaching somebody they don’t know really well and talking about their deep secrets and issues,” said Julianne Bradford, a seventh-grade Hope Squad veteran like Kresbach. “I thought that was important we approach them instead of them approaching us.”
Gabby Hauser also returns to the Hope Squad.
She said it’s the little things that can make a big difference in someone’s day.
“It is small things like giving someone a pencil or saying ‘Have a great day,’ or smiling and waving in the hallway that I think really make a difference,” Hauser said.
For Brick, the best way to know the program is effective is a lack of data to measure.
“The fact that we’ve had none (suicides) I would say is good, that’s a good sign,” she said. “We are headed in the right direction. We haven’t had any in the last year, so our hope there is no data to measure.”
Another positive sign for the Hope Squad is the community support that has poured in after two grants got the process started.
“We met with two very influential business owners and community members and they have fund-raised for our De Pere community to be able to fully partake in Hope Squad and implement all years of curriculum and train staff in schools without grants,” Brick said.
The Hope Squad isn’t just a reality now for those on the east side.
Thanks to donations, the West De Pere School District and parochial schools in the city are able to participate.
“It’s become a community thing,” Brick said. “It’s not just a school thing; it’s become a community initiative to implement Hope Squad. We are kind of unprecedentedly collaborating across the bridge. There might be a bridge that divides our districts, but we’re very united around Hope Squad.”
On Friday, Sept. 13, educators from Ashwaubenon, West De Pere, Green Bay and parochial schools attended Hope Squad training at St. Norbert College to start programs in their districts.
This comes on the heels of Gov. Tony Evers declaring September Suicide Prevention Month in Wisconsin.
“It is critically important that we all work together to reduce barriers to and shame around seeking help and raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention across our state,” Evers said in a press release.
Brick said more donations are needed to continue the effort for all De Pere schools, because Hope Squad has lots of curriculum across the different age groups and there is a cost with the initial implementation.
People can drop off donations at the De Pere district office and will be mailed tax deductible information.
“We are the gatekeepers for the funds for all schools in De Pere,” Brick said.