'Squad' goals: Kids give hope to kids considering suicide

DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) School counselors and administrators went back to school Friday, learning how to implement a suicide prevention and intervention program that's proven successful around the country.

The De Pere Unified School District became the second district in the state last year to implement the Hope Squad.

It's now expanding to several more local districts this month.

"The Hope Squad is a group of students who are nominated by their peers to help other kids who are having problems or some challenges. Maybe they're feeling sad, have some worries, and they're trained to be good listeners and problem solvers for these kids," says Melanie Brick, school social worker for De Pere Schools. "We train them to identify problems they can help other kids work with or problems they need to seek an adult's help with."

Brick helped implement the Hope Squad for fifth and sixth graders at Foxview Intermediate School in De Pere last year.

Students embraced the new program and ran with it.

"The kids are so resilient and so curious and they really want to help their peers, so they've been highly motivated to learn the skills it takes to be a good listener," says Brick.

The Hope Squad teaches kids to help kids and know when to get adults involved.

"We do not do staff nominations. We do peer nominations, so we have students choose other kids who they feel are good listeners... kids they would want to go to if they were having a problem," explains Brick. "It's not a popularity contest. It's more about kids who are kind and good listeners and good problem solvers."

Former Utah high school principal, Dr. Greg Hudnall, founded the Hope Squad 15 years ago.

"I was contacted by the Provo Police Department to come down and identify the body of a 14-year old who had taken his life right next to my school," recounts Hudnall. "And it was by far, one of the most difficult challenges, and when I got done, I walked to my car, and I literally threw up and sobbed, and then I made a vow to do everything I could to help prevent suicide."

He's now working to take the Hope Squad around the world to address a societal problem.

"The piece that we were missing is peer to peer. A ninth grader came into Provo High School right after the Christmas holidays, took his watch off, gave it to his best friend, said I'm not going to read this after tomorrow. He went on to tell five other friends that he was going to take his life. Not one of the friends told an adult, and the next day, he died by suicide, so we knew we needed to change that wall of silence, that tide," says Hudnall.

Friday, he was at St. Norbert College, training counselors, administrators and staff from De Pere, West De Pere, Ashwaubenon and Green Bay how to make the Hope Squad successful among their students.

"It's the kids! I love being around these young people because they feel so empowered, and they feel like they're making a difference," says Hudnall.

"If we can kind of put some eyes or ears in the school, other than the staff, we feel like that's a real benefit to our students," says Brick.

"At Timpview High School, that we started in 15 years ago, the principal called me in May, right after graduation and he said, hey, Greg, I just want to remind you, we started this 15 years ago, and it's been 15 years without a suicide," says Hudnall with a smile.

It's finding success where there's hope.

The Hope Squad started at Foxview Intermediate in De Pere with funding from state mental health grants, but the new training and curriculum to expand into more schools is continuing thanks to contributions and donations from the community. If you'd like to donate to the program, checks can be made payable to the Unified School District of De Pere, at 1700 Chicago Street, De Pere, WI 54115. The Unified School District of De Pere is the fiscal agent for Hope Squad funds throughout the area.