Last year, students at Mountain Village School in Mountain Village, Alaska were rocked by the suicide of a classmate. The sadness from the death still lingers, and it was one of the reasons 27 Mountain Village high school students visited Utah this week to learn about Hope Squads.
Hope Squads, which consists of students chosen by their peers as kind, good listeners and easy to talk to, are in many Utah high schools. The squads are part of the Hope4Utah program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing suicides. The squads are trained to watch for at-risk students, provide a listening ear, identify warning signs and alert adults.
When Laraine Adams, Director of Student Services at Lower Yukon School District, heard about Hope Squads during a recent visit to Utah, she knew this was something that was needed in her community.
Adams said Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
“It rang so true," she said. "Our kids are working to bring hope, not only to our school, but to our community.”
The Alaska students are part of a group called Natural Helpers, a service-oriented organization in the school.
Charlotte Tikiun, group sponsor for Natural Helpers, said the group has spent the week learning about Hope Squads from students in Utah. The Natural Helpers have also shared some of their ideas with the Hope Squads. They have met students at Provo, Pleasant Grove, Lehi and Spanish Fork High Schools.
“Suicide is a really big problem,” said Tikiun about her region in Alaska. “We need to learn how to improve and be more active."
The next step for the Alaska students, said Adams, is for them to figure out how to take what they have seen in Utah and “Alaska-ize” it to fit in with the culture of the Central Yup’ik Eskimo people.
“It’s exciting to come down and have these kids be a part of making it happen,” she said. “These are the future leaders of Mountain Village.”
In addition to visiting schools, the group also received Hope Squad training from Dr. Greg Hudnall, Hope4Utah Founder.
Hudnall said he is notified weekly by people who have heard about the program and want to implement it in their schools.
“We have been contacted by schools and individuals from Wyoming, state of Washington, California, Indiana, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and interest from new Zealand, South Korea, Ireland and Canada,” he said.
The trip for the Alaska students was not all about learning and sharing about Hope Squads. The Mountain Village students were able to visit Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University, present donations of self-care kits to Primary Children’s Hospital, visit some malls and attend school activities. They also shared traditional dances with the students at the high schools.
Tikiun said Utah Valley has been somewhat of a shock to the kids.
“There is such a large population,” she said.
Mountain Village has a population of 840 people, and there are 250 students in the school in grades kindergarten through 12th.
For many of the kids, this trip was their first time away from home.
“There were some tears,” Tikiun said. “But this is important.”