BY JOSEPH STURGEON
Traditionally, high school clubs are centered around career interests, hobbies or academics. Cooper City High’s HOPE Sunshine Club deviates from this standard— it focuses on matters such as mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse.
The club, which has branches in several schools across Broward County, was started by the Florida Initiative for Suicide Prevention (FISP), a non-profit organization striving to spread mental health awareness.
“We started the HOPE Club during the 2015-16 school year,” former sponsor Danielle Ramirez said. “The club was started for students to talk about hard topics such as suicide prevention, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying and whatever other topics students want to discuss.”
Ramirez, who was the sponsor of HOPE Club since it reached CCHS, moved to Colorado after the 2018-19 school year. Kimberly Lilly, guidance counselor and peer counseling teacher, is stepping in as the new sponsor of the club for the 2019-20 school year, and what she hopes is many years to come.
“Ramirez was the HOPE Club sponsor last year, and I watched the club do amazing things,” Lilly said. “They were very active, and the students were very engaged. I saw a level of excitement in helping others with mental health awareness and providing support. When she left, I wanted to carry that on. I didn’t want [HOPE Club] to be without anyone that was passionate like she was.”
Mental illness in adolescents is an issue nationwide, but in Florida, the problem seems to be larger than usual. Access to mental healthcare in Florida is relatively low compared to other states, as the state is ranked 44th in the nation.
The Baker Act, a Florida bill that was passed in 1971, allows for the involuntary examination of a person’s mental state if said person is suspected to hurt themselves or others in the near future due to mental illness. While adults’ examinations and holding are allowed to last up to 72 hours, initiation of examinations of minors have to start after 12 hours. From fiscal year 2011 to 2016, such examinations for minors increased by 49 percentage points, compared with a population increase of only five percentage points.
To spread mental health awareness at CCHS, HOPE Club holds biweekly meetings, typically consisting of heartfelt discussions between members on topics such as friendship, loss and stress.
“We want to make sure that everybody in our school knows they can count on us.”
“Most of the time, the topics and our discussions are on pretty heavy subjects so we try to lighten the mood,” HOPE Club president Brandaly Mora said. “In the end, our main goal is to educate [members] on the topic and have them feeling like they can come to us for anything they need.”
Since the topics of the group discussions are typically sensitive, some information shared can call for the involvement of higher authority figures in order for certain situations to be handled properly.
“Student safety is always one of our highest, if not the highest concern [the club] has,” secretary Matthew Milotskis said. “If someone shares something that might end with them or others being hurt, we are required to share it with our sponsor and they will deal with it from there.”
Outside of meetings and group discussions, HOPE Club hosts events and fundraisers throughout the school year.
“Last year, we went to a farm called HAPPI Farm and volunteered to help take care of the animals there, which was a lot of fun,” Milotskis said. “We also did the FISP Annual HOPE Walk, which is a yearly walk to show awareness for suicide and donate to causes that help teens overcome the stigma of mental health and suicide.”
One particular event that HOPE Club has hosted is the Sidewalk Talk movement, an initiative inspired by the movie “Listen,” in which the members, playing the role of the ‘listener,’ would walk side-by-side with another person and without providing feedback, listen to them speak. This event took place in several areas— outdoor markets, sidewalks, shopping malls and other busy areas.
“We want to make sure that everybody in our school knows they can count on us,” Mora said.
For this upcoming school year, HOPE Club plans to continue their fundraisers and host more on-campus events. They plan on partaking in the “Hugs for HOPE Hug-A-Thon,” an event organized by FISP that spreads awareness about suicide prevention and the facts around it.
“We want to try and get people from Broward Health, or people from FISP itself [to] come and talk about mental health and the stigma around it,” Milotskis said. “Since it’s new to the school, it’ll definitely take a lot of planning to make sure it’s able to be done this year.”
Photo courtesy of HOPE Sunshine Club